Should Private "For Profit" Corporations be allowed to run U.S. Prisons?  Would privatization change the way prisons are run?Should Private "For Profit" Corporations be allowed to run U.S....

Should Private "For Profit" Corporations be allowed to run U.S. Prisons?  Would privatization change the way prisons are run?

Should Private "For Profit" Corporations be allowed to run U.S. Prisons?  Would privatization change the way prisons are run?

Expert Answers
MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that the advent of private prisons will absolutely lead to higher rates of incarceration; in fact, it already has. The increase of incarceration correlates with the increase in private prisons. I am not saying they are the cause of more crime, but they certainly haven't proven to decrease the rates at all, nor have they proven more financially efficient. Essentially, the more people incarcerated, the more money those prisons will make. The private prison system has also become so politically entangled that the danger of corruption and fraud is just as great (or greater) than government-run institutions. Take Arizona for example. Governor Jan Brewer's campaign chairman and policy advisor is also a lobbyist for Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the nation. They also hold an exclusive contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so any illegal immigrant arrested in Arizona is sent to one of their facilities. At the federal level, CCA has given more than $100,000 in soft money to the Republican Party since 1997 as well as political action committee contributions to individual members of key Congressional committees. With the recent uproar over illegal immigration (manufactured I think, to some extent- illegal immigration has actually dropped over the past decade), it seems that these kinds of corporations stand to make a great deal.

Also, private prisons generally have worse records in many areas than government prisons. For example, a study released on Corrections Corporation of America showed many violations, including

  • failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners;
  • failure to control violence in its prisons;
  • substandard conditions that have resulted in prisoner protests and uprisings;
  • criminal activity on the part of some CCA employees, including the sale of illegal drugs to prisoners; and
  • escapes, which in the case of at least two facilities include inadvertent releases of prisoners who were supposed to remain in custody.

Sidenote: the recent fugitive escapes in Arizona were also from a private prison. Yet because prisons are very labor intensive institutions, the only way a company like CCA can sell itself to government as a cheaper option than public prisons while still making a profit, is by using as few staff as possible, paying them as little as possible, and not spending much on training. For example, annual turnover rates at several CCA facilities in Tennessee have been more than 60 percent. We also see the opposition of public service unions to the spread of prison privatization. In addition, much of the hype about private prisons is produced by researchers who are funded by the industry. For example, Charles Thomas, director of the supposedly neutral Private Prison Project of the University of Florida who was widely quoted as an expert on prison privatization throughout the 90s, served on the board of CCA and received several millions of dollars in consulting fees from them.

Overall, I think privately-run prisons are not a better alternative than government-run institutions. You face all of the same issues of corruption, cutting corners, etc. that people normally cite as examples of the failures of government, yet you have the addition of a profit-driven culture. Unfortunately, these profits are driven by crime. Therefore, they have no stake in lowering the crime rates, and in fact, stand to profit the more people we incarcerate.

hustoncmk eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I believe that it might be beneficial to have "for profit" corporations running prisons.  For profit corporations are usually more concerned with the bottom line, and budgets than government agencies. They cannot raise taxes to raise more money.  I think privatization might make prisons run more efficiently and cut out some of the layers of bureacracy.

Several areas would need to be regulated and audited on a regular basis.  One example of this would be meals for prisoners.  The menus would have to be nutritious and varied.  I know that in the county I currently live in, any money budgeted for food that is not spent by the prison is given to the sheriff.  Policies like this would definitely need to change as this is a conflict of interest. For the sheriff it is best to spend as little on prisoners' meals as possible, regardless of nutrition. I also know that the state of Maine has a law on its' books stating that lobster cannot be fed to prisoners more than three times per week. 

A for profit corporation could also have prisoners earn part of their keep by performing various jobs, depending on the security level of the prisoners. The jobs could either be within in the prison, or supervised as part of a work-team.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am not a giant fan of privatization of government services in many forms, as it has a very checkered history of providing lower quality service at inflated prices.  Privatization of contract services in Iraq is one such example.

As far as the prison system goes, I do not believe we should create a financial incentive for anyone to keep people in prison.  Prisons are a necessary evil, designed to protect society and punish criminals as opposed to being designed to turn a profit for individuals and companies.  The prison-industrial complex is real, costs hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and feeds off of public tax dollars.

For-profit prisons also have incentives to cut corners and provide lower quality food, fewer guards, and anything else that might make the bottom line larger.

Some government systems simply do not function well, or in the public interest, if they are privatized.  I believe the prison system is one of those.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do not agree with the first answer.  We already have many prisons that are run by private companies and this sort of doomsday scenario has not happened.

In my opinion, as long as governmental bodies set out strong regulations concerning these privately owned prisons, there is no reason that they should be any worse that government-run prisons.

As long as private companies are not allowed to cut corners or abuse their prisoners (and we have trouble with that happening even in government prisons) they should be more efficient in running prisons.  They will have much more of an incentive to find ways to economize and they will (if forced to) do so within the rules.

Our prison system is not much good under government control.  I doubt that private control would make it worse and it could, theoretically, make it better.

kapokkid eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Given that we already incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world, I consider the privatization of prisons to be one of the more horrendous ideas out there.  The fact is, once you privatize something, you place all of the incentive on increasing volume, cutting costs, etc.  So suddenly we have an incredibly large and powerful industry that will quickly have a very powerful lobby whose interest lies in imprisoning even more people.

This would inevitably lead to higher rates of incarceration, likely stricter sentencing laws regardless of their effect on crime, and other horrible things that would increase the profit for the shareholders in the prison system.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It seems so logical, doesn't it?  With the increasingly high costs of keeping more and more prisoners behind bars, opening the management to private companies who would, ideally, keep costs under control in order to create a profit.  That generally works for products; however, when the commodity is human, the stakes are too high to risk it.  Privatizing schools, in contrast, would probably create a better product and offer incentive for growth--not something we want in our prison system, I think.

mrs-audry | Student

In the United States, mass incarceration reached crisis levels in the 1990s. Today, statistically, one in three American adults has a criminal record by the time they turn 23. Over 600,000 prisoners are flooding back into the community each year -- a number which is offset by some 11 million annual arrests, over 95% of which are resolved via plea bargaining. 

According to new research, the total annual cost of mass incarceration -- and I just reported on this for Prison Legal News this past November --  is now over a trillion dollars. That's eleven times what anyone has ever anticipated before, and about 6% of the gross national product. 

The kicker is that over half of those expenses are shouldered by the prisoners and their families directly. 

Private prisons do not reduce those costs, nor do they reduce recidivism rates by any stretch of the imagination. Incarceration is a business to them. They have a financial interest in keeping people locked up. 

It has been well reported that the contracts between private prisons and the states they do business with include a clause stipulating that the prisons are to be kept almost full at all times, and if the system doesn't send enough people to fill those prison beds, taxpayers are slammed with "low crime taxes" which go directly into private pockets. 

Mother Jones did a really great exposé of private prisons where they sent a journalist undercover to work as a prison guard for a private prison facility in the South. I recommend it to anyone who has questions about the way private prisons are using your tax dollars, since they are invariably "hush-hush" about it, thwarting the public's expectation that it should without question have the right to know what prison profiteers are doing with everyone's money.

Bottom line: You simply do not turn the misery and suffering of others into a gold mine. It's basically morally objectionable, and whatever can be said in favor of the practice is insufficient.