Private prison companies are close to achieving a Holy Grail of business: The perpetual customer base.
This business plan relies entirely upon the willingness of governments (funded by our tax dollars) to not only recruit the customers but to pay their bills as well.
That's the scam behind the Arizona illegal immigration bill and the many imitators that have sprung up around the country.
In Kentucky, Senate President David Williams, who is also a candidate for governor, is preparing to carry the torch.
The idea is simple enough: Illegal immigration is the gay-marriage issue of the day for conservative candidates and lawmakers. Just a whiff of it incites a certain base to wield checkbooks and march to the polls in the cause of righteousness.
But it's a classic twofer: So-called immigration reform a la Arizona also promises riches to the private prison companies. What better way to fill the cells and bolster the bottom line than to have state governments start seeking out and locking up every undocumented resident, regardless of criminal activity or intent?
A perpetual customer base delivered and payment guaranteed.
This is what could be termed a win-win-lose proposition. Williams gets to stir up the electorate as he makes a bid for the big job; the private prisons that have already served Kentucky so badly at great expense get to make more money; and Kentucky becomes ever poorer.
No wonder Corrections Corporation of America is spending millions of its lobbying dollars on immigration legislation. The immigration laws are the brainchildren of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an organization of which Williams and many other state legislators are members but that is largely funded by huge corporate contributions, including tens of thousands of dollars from private prison companies.
There are many ironies in this situation, but one of the most striking is that Williams is at the same time preaching fiscal reform by, among other things, saving money on pensions for state workers.
There's certainly reason to rethink state pensions, but there are better uses for any money saved than to enrich private prison companies.
This whole fervor to lock people up has gotten Kentucky in a lot of fiscal trouble already. Kentucky spent $294 million to keep prisoners behind bars in 2000, a cost that climbed to $451 million last year.
There are a lot of reasons for this state of affairs but one is political pandering. As anxiety over drugs and crime has increased, legislators eager to appear tough on crime have criminalized more and more activities and added years to prison sentences for what were once considered relatively minor offenses.
Money that could have been spent on things that could actually reduce illegal drug use — education and drug prevention and rehabilitation programs — instead has gone to warehousing thousands of Kentuckians in state prisons.
Recently some leaders have summoned the political courage, reinforced by economic necessity, to reverse this trend. The last thing we need to do is enact legislation that would result in locking people up who have committed no crime other than being here.
There are plenty of serious issues to debate in a governor's race in Kentucky and Williams is a smart legislator with a deep understanding of many of them.
He'd serve himself and the state better by talking about real issues instead of waving the flag of an issue-for-hire that will further impoverish Kentucky to enrich an out-of-state corporation.