For more than three decades, the privatization of prisons and detention centers has been a contentious issue in U.S. politics. At the end of President Obama’s second term, the administration under Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates highlighted a plan to phase out the private prisons (Craig & Pond Cummings, 2019). However, after the election of Donald Trump as the president, the private prisons debate took a turn as he supported their operations. Twenty-two states, including Nevada, Illinois and California, have enacted laws that abolished the use of a private prisons system (Kim, 2019). The thesis states that private prisons should be abolished as their economic model leads to increased incarceration rates, longer lengths of prison stays, and increased recidivism levels.
Private prisons were established at the height of the war on drugs and crime campaign from the 1980s to the 1990s. The rise in the prison population resulted in higher operating costs and overcrowding, which the government could no longer afford (Craig & Pond Cummings, 2019). Private prisons were formed to keep the federal and state governments from incurring high costs in running jails. Therefore, private prisons are operated by for-profit corporations instead of governmental authorities. Roughly 8 % of U.S. prisoners are held in private prisons, and the federal government is the largest user of the private facilities, housing 15% of all federal inmates (Valentin, 2021, pg. 6). The most dominant private prison companies include CoreCivic, Inc, the GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation. The three companies combined incarcerate most of the prisoners in private for-profit prisons.
Effect of Private Prisons on Judicial Prison Sentencing, Length of Prison Stay, and Recurring Incarceration Rates
Critics of the for-profit prison system highlight its negative effect on the judicial sentencing process. Private prisons result in a rise in the number of people detained and the prolonged length of their incarceration. This is particularly evident in non-violent crimes such as property damage and fraud, with flexible sentencing guidelines (Galinato & Rohla, 2020). The government pays the private companies a negotiated yearly cost per prisoner for the facilities to provide inmates with a mandatory ration of food, clothing, health care, and other living needs. The private prison contracts include occupancy guarantees and provisions that taxpayers cover the cost of empty beds. For-profit prisons rely on full occupancy levels to be economically viable; thus, courts increase the incarceration rate and length of prisoner’s stay to eliminate empty beds, which adds to government costs.
These contracts indirectly affect the judicial prison sentencing as judges are forced to give longer sentences for petty crimes to maintain the private prisons’ occupancy levels. In addition, private prison companies often tamper with the judicial process by corrupting judges to maintain the full occupancy levels at the facilities. These cases highlight the need to reform the judicial process by banning private prisons, as they act as an incentive to increase incarceration rates. A judge may be hesitant to send petty offenders to prison when the public prisons are at capacity. The establishment of private prisons incentives more people to be incarcerated as they do not have capacity issues or operations deficits inherent in public prisons.
Conflict of Interest between Inmates and Shareholders
There is a conflict of interest regarding the mission of prisons when the private prison system is used to incarcerate people. Private prison companies benefit financially from the continued incarceration of offenders. The private prison industry has a vested financial stake in mass incarceration’s continuous expansion, thus lobbying for punitive criminal justice policies that increase reliance on their prisons. The private prison companies provide funding to politicians who push the narrative of their relevance in Congress.
Private prison companies’ ultimate focus is to maximize shareholders’ gains through increased profit margins. Private prison corporations arose as a result of their ability to construct jails quicker and without voter consent. In addition, the companies claimed they could provide a higher service quality at a lower price. However, today majority of the private prison companies’ profits come from state and federal corrections and detention contracts, highlighting their reliance on the increased number of incarcerations. In addition, CoreCivic Inc and GEO Group are publicly-traded; therefore, their stock fluctuates or increases based on projections of the number of people the judicial system will incarcerate. This conflict of interest shows that for-profit prisons serve the shareholders instead of the innates. For-profit prison companies should thus be abolished as their interests are not aligned with the innates but rather profits.
Increased Recidivism Rates
The most significant measure of any prison is its rehabilitation and recidivism rate. For-profit prisons provide fewer opportunities for prisoners regarding education and rehabilitative efforts. Research indicates that education programs in prison tend to reduce recidivism rates. Therefore, private prisons have no regard for education services as their primary incentive is to keep people in prison. The denial of rehabilitation programs in prisons ensures private prisons an increased likelihood of released inmates going back to prison. The notion is that the higher the recidivism rate, the higher the profits as more beds are filled. The high recidivism rate shows that the private prison system is incapable of reducing recidivism as they are the greatest beneficiaries of people going back to prisons and thus should be abolished.
Decreased Safety in Private Prisons
There is no conclusive report that shows private prisons provide quality services at lower costs, the primary goal of their establishment. According to research, private jails deliver fewer correctional services while saving money. Private prisons decrease personnel costs and training, putting inmates’ safety at risk (Armstrong, 2019). In addition, private prison companies pay their officers reduced compensation and have higher inmate-to-staff ratios. The low compensation rates and lack of experienced officers negatively affect inmates’ quality of life. The inadequate staff leads to increased assaults among inmates; thus, the prisons are not safe. The greater risk to the innate population outweighs the trivial fiscal benefit they provide and, therefore, should be abolished to pave the way for a comprehensive prison system.
Proponents of private prisons base their arguments on cost, the advantages of free-market competition, and the efficiency of business operations. Proponents of for-profit prisons believe that private corporations provide better services at lower rates than government-run facilities. The reduced costs are based on decreased labor costs, lower cost of goods, and lower construction costs. The reduced labor costs emanate from private prisons using non-union labor whose compensation is not subject to collective bargaining. In addition, private prison companies cover the facilities’ building costs, thus saving the government from financing obligations through taxes and bonds. This ultimately saves the government funds as they do not have to pay interest on bonds, and the capital is diverted to other projects. Government bidding laws do not bind private jail firms and thus can purchase goods and services at competitive prices and lower expenses. The proponents of the private prison system refer to the performance measures in the government contracts as a basis for their continued operation. To maintain accreditation, private companies must achieve the American Correctional Association’s basic performance standards.
These include a limit on the number of inmates to prevent overcrowding, which is not present in government-run prisons.
Private jails also contribute to the local revenue base by taxes, which helps the state collect more money. Furthermore, private prisons provide competition to the public facilities, which pushes them to enhance their services. The ethical concern regarding correctional facilities extends beyond the focus on public and private prisons. Though there are things that society thinks should not be commercialized, benefiting from the privatization of prisons is not one of them. The ethical question should be whether the profits are gained from providing a good quality service and humane conditions (Montes, 2020). The government’s moral obligation should be to achieve the greatest results possible, even by privatizing sensitive sectors like the jail system.
This essay thesis states that private prisons should be abolished as their economic model is contrary to the social mission of prisons. The critics of the private prison system allude to its negative effect on the judicial process based on government contracts which leads to harsher sentencing to increase the prison occupancy rate. The for-profit prison companies focus on profits instead of rehabilitation, thus increasing recidivism rates. The proponents of the private prison system argue that it is more efficient as it lacks government bureaucracies, leading to lower quality of service. The adverse effects of the private prison system outweigh its benefits and thus should be abolished. Restructuring the private prison system is detrimental in the long run as one cannot incentivize a private business to halt operations.
Armstrong, M. (2019). Here’s why abolishing private prisons isn’t a silver bullet. The Marshall Project; The Marshall Project.
Craig, R., & Pond Cummings, A. D. (2019). Abolishing private prisons: A constitutional and moral imperative. University of Baltimore Law Review: Vol 49, 261.
Galinato, G. I., & Rohla, R. (2020). Do privately-owned prisons increase incarceration rates? Labor Economics. Vol. 67, issue C.
Kim, C. (2019). A growing number of states are banning private prisons. Vox; Vox.
Montes, A. N. (2020). Ethical concerns about private and public corrections: Extending the focus beyond profit-making and the delegation of punishment. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 31(4), 609–630.
Valentin, L. (2021). The first step to stop corporations from profiting from incarceration in the United States. Transnational Institute.