Private Prisons: A Criminal Injustice


A few months ago, a group of inmates in a private prison in Mississippi rioted, taking hostages and killing a correctional officer. This should come as no surprise. Private prisons present intrinsic problems that can be traced back to the mid 1800s, when New York's Auburn and Sing Sing prisons were managed by private operators. 

Many of these prisons had to be closed down after reports of "malnourishment, frequent whippings, overwork and overcrowding." Bare in mind that this took place during the industrial revolution, when child labor, a lack of a minimum wage, and miserable working conditions were intrinsic components of the status quo. If private prisons were too inhumane for this barbarous era it is surprising that there hasn't been a more forceful clamor for their abolition in our own. We need to shut down private prisons because they are not producing the promised cost-savings, have limited accountability, and are run by corporate officials with conflicting motives.

In the New York Times Op-Ed "Private Companies Living Off Government Contracts," Paul Krugman emphasizes the touted cost-savings promised by private prisons "have simply not materialized." In "Private Prisons Found To Offer Little In Savings," Richard Oppel Jr. confirms this idea, pointing out that a 2007 survey led a University of Utah team to conclude, "cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal." Oppel Jr. goes on to point out that data produced by Arizona state officials suggests, "inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more [than those in public prisons] per year." Further boosting the price of private prisons is the way these institutions pre-select the less-troubled inmates. This cherry picking of healthier inmates who require less services leads to a high probability of private prisons costing far more than is reported. Finally, according to an article in the Tucson Citizen, federal agencies "have admitted private prisons cost more to operate and no longer use cost savings as the primary factor in awarding prison contracts." If this is the case — and our own government admits private prisons don't save money — why continually build more of them?

Another problem with private prisons is they have limited accountability. The Huffington Post reports that "private [prisons] don't have to follow the same public records and access requirements." At the same time the ethical quandaries presented by private prisons in the 1800s continue to rear their ugly head. While there may not be "frequent whippings" today, private prisons provide limited services and reduce security and inmate monitoring. A study conducted by the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) found significant problems in private prisons revolving around safety and accountability. The report mentioned such elements as under-trained guards, poor state oversight, deficient rehabilitation programs, lack of educational options, and an increased rate of assaults, disturbances, and riots. This data is reinforced by a nationwide study that found "assaults on guards by inmates were 49% more frequent in private prisons than in government-run prisons." It also demonstrated that "assaults on fellow inmates were 65% more common in private prisons." (Austin, Coventry, "Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons") Throw in the way the poor security makes frequent escapes seem far too facile--three convicted murderers in Kingman, Arizona, for example, escaped using a basic set of wire cutters—and the value of the private prison system seems highly questionable at best.

Yet another problem presented by private prisons is the corporate officials at the helm of these entities can't help but have conflicting motives. As stewards of these companies their primary responsibility is to produce increased profits for shareholders. Hence, it is very difficult for them to be genuinely interested in the welfare of inmates, let alone their rehabilitation. After all when a prisoner reforms himself he or she is much less likely to function as a future source of profit. In an article in The Huffington Post, Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, put the problem of private prisons this way, "there's a disincentive for the companies to provide treatment because the inmates continue to be customers." Similarly, a private prison has little motivation to release an inmate early — regardless of how well he or she may have behaved — since this will reduce that corporation's cash flow. Don't think the executives who run these private prisons aren't aware of these complexities. As Glen Ford pointed out in "Private Prison Corporations Are Slave Traders," The Correction Corporation of America's filing with the SEC warned of the risk of "relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards ... [or] the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our current laws." In plain English, the Correction Corporation is betting that we'll continue to incarcerate at our current rate, a necessary precondition for the successful operation of their enterprise. For, to these corporate raiders, "human freedom is a dirty word."

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These rates only continue to rise. In total 6 million Americans are incarcerated today as opposed to as little as 400,000 during the Reagan era. Yet according to The Christian Science Monitor and Common Dreams, crime has dramatically decreased in the past 20 years. The majority of this increased incarceration rate can be attributed to private prisons, which have gone from relatively minor concerns (housing 10% of all inmates a decade ago), to housing half of all inmates in the civil detention system. Three major corporations, The Connections Corporation of America, The Geo Group, and Management and Training Corp bill tax payers at a rate of $166 per inmate each night — a figure that likely beats what they'd earn if they went in the hotel business. In total, these three giants earned an estimated $2 billion this year, thanks largely to the increased number of incarcerated undocumented immigrants. So why are incarceration rates going up even though crime rates are dropping? It doesn't take Einstein to tell you there are 2 billion answers to that question — and they all have George Washington's face on them.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that private prisons fail to serve the public good. They don't save money. Often present violent outcomes. Offer limited security. Disenfranchise inmates. Provide poor medical services. Incarcerate more individuals than seems justified. And, as a whole, are run by corporate officials who have conflicting motives. Given these findings it is time we take legislative action to terminate these poorly run, difficult-to-monitor, and profit-fixated entities.