Prison profiteers use campaign contributions to buy contracts

How do the campaign contributions of the prison phone industry compare to those of the private prison industry?

by Peter Wagner, November 25, 2015

The Voice of OC has revealed that $85,000 in campaign contributions to two Orange County, California county supervisors by Global Tel*Link flipped the two supervisors from being opponents of charging families high phone rates into supporters.

The Voice of OC articles are a must-read (first article, second article), and they have a video showing the dramatic change in positions:

We’re thrilled to see more investigation of the phone companies using campaign contributions to purchase influence. We broke the first story of this type in August, with our exposé that found that Securus was one of the largest contributors to the sheriff’s reelection campaign in Sacramento, California. Notably, this is a county where Securus did not have the contract, but clearly wanted to be the winning bidder when the contract was next put out for bid.

How big is $85,000 in campaign contributions, exactly? To be sure, it pales in comparison to the $4 million/year in kickbacks that the contract would give to the Orange County slush fund called the “Inmate Welfare Fund”. (Despite the name, the funds can be used for almost anything, and as the Voice of OC article says, most of it is spent on staff salaries.)

On the other hand, $85,000 was apparently enough to change these two votes in this one county. And it’s a massive sum when you compare it to the outrage that was aimed at Hillary Clinton after The Intercept reported that bundlers associated with the private prison industry were supporting her presidential campaign with similar amounts of money. (ColorOfChange says that the total received by the Clinton campaign from the industry was $133,000.)

It’s stories like this that illustrate two points we’ve been making a lot lately:

  • Jails matter. Their policies might be set by 3,000 local governments, which can make them hard to follow and understand. But we need to look at jails, which are literally mass incarceration’s front door.
  • Private prisons get all the attention, but other kinds of prison profiteers like the prison phone industry and the California guard union are just as successful — if not more so — at buying the outcomes they want.

Peter Wagner is Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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