Prison firms that restructured as real estate investment trusts see substantial tax cut – more good news for those who benefit from increased incarceration
By Jamiles Lartey in New York | The Guardian | December 28, 2017
Individual investors in US private prisons are poised to collect their most lucrative earnings ever thanks to changes in the tax code signed by Donald Trump, continuing what has been a banner year for the industry since the 2016 election.
“It’s going to be great for the investors, banks and hedge funds that own shares in private prisons, and are dependent on increased incarceration and criminalization,” said Jamie Trinkle, campaign and research coordinator with the racial and economic justice coalition Enlace.
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Under the new GOP law, investments in so-called “real estate investment trusts” (reits) will see a 25% reduction in tax, from 39.6% down to 29.6%.
Corecivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and the Geo Group, which together own more than 80% of private prison beds in the US, both restructured as reits in 2013 after a private letter ruling by the Obama Administration IRS green-lit the change.
“This tax act is of unprecedented benefit for reit investors,” said David Miller, a tax partner at Proskauer Rose. “I think reits will explode in popularity as a result of this act.”
With dividends of more than $430m paid out by the two major private prison companies in 2017, in theory, prison investors could see an additional $50m in dividend earnings next year, thanks to the GOP legislation. The actual figure will be lower than that, however, as some proportion of those shares are owned by institutional investors which are taxed differently from individuals. The exact breakdown between the two is not available in public filings.
Even without the new lower tax rate, the reit classification was already a huge boon to the private prison industry. Before converting to a reit in 2013, Corecivic was subject to a 36% corporate tax rate. After the reorganization, it reported paying an effective tax rate in the first quarter of 2015 of just 3%.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, said: “The way they are able to get away with that, is that they’re not allowed to keep a lot of cash on hand, they have to give it back to investors though dividends. But it allows them to have an incredibly low tax rate.”
According to Eisen, prison companies have essentially argued that renting out cells to the government is the equivalent of charging a tenant rent, thus making such business primarily a real estate venture. In her new book, Inside Private Pri