An NPR investigation goes right to the heart of the problem with private prisons: Putting a profit motive behind taking away people’s freedom.

It looked into Arizona’s powerful private-prison system and found that it helped boost the notoriously tough law the state passed against illegal immigration earlier this year.

The bill was written and named in D.C. by a small group of corporations and legislators that included representatives from Corrections Corporation of America (I love that name, by the way: it says a lot about your modern day United States in just four words), which is the biggest corporate-prison company. Conveniently enough, CCA “executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market,” according to company reports. CCA hired a bigtime lobbyist that week to pitch the bill, and the governor has two aides who used to lobby for the private-prison business. Plus, naturally:

At the state Capitol, campaign donations started to appear.

Thirty of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.

It’s insidious and it ought to make your skin crawl. These companies make their money by locking up people—the more the better. That’s their incentive. The state has put the profit motive, one of the most powerful forces we know, behind depriving people of liberty. If you think that’s overwrought or abstract, just look at what’s gone on here.

Unfortunately, NPR overplays its hand somewhat. Reading or listening to its story, you’d get the impression that the law passed mainly because the prison industry, in cahoots with other corporate players, played a behind-the-scenes role in proposing and enacting the tough law. It sure helped.

Its reporting on the behind-the-scenes corporate influence on legislation is first rate. But you can’t just report that in isolation as if that’s the only thing going on here. It’s not.

The vast majority of the country is long past done with the illegal immigration problem. You could put forth a bill to literally run illegal immigrants out of town on a rail and it would probably get a wave of support in statehouses. As it turns out, CBS News surveyed Americans—not just Arizonans—and found that they supported the law (or thought it didn’t go far enough) by 74 percent to 23 percent.

It looks out to lunch—and undermines its otherwise excellent story—by glossing over the fact that this scheme had popular support.

And speaking of going too far, this is over the top:

The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

Pew reports that Arizona has 40,000 inmates. This law or any other isn’t going to at least quintuple its prison population.

NPR found lots of interesting stuff. It’s excellent reporting. But its conclusions needed to be dialed in a bit and leavened with better context. Like this from an Arizona Republic editorial:

In fact, the essential parts of SB 1070 have appeared in various forms in legislation sponsored by Pearce every year since 2005. Support for the senator’s bill appeared just as waffling and uncertain as ever until a southern Arizona rancher was shot to death.

The death of Robert Krentz and a competitive GOP gubernatorial primary had much to do with SB 1070 passing, certainly far more than alleged Machiavellian plots by cackling industrialists.

The Republic pooh poohs NPR’s story too much in the rest of the editorial, but it’s got a good point here. NPR’s piece would have been stronger with that context.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.