The idea of privatizing prisons seems inherently unethical and completely counterproductive to what the Criminal Justice system seeks when people are sent to prison. But the US, with the highest incarceration rate in the world, is embracing private prisons because the perceived upside revolves around the idea of saving money. Private prisons are commonly thought to save the government money, as private contractors could charge a smaller amount to house an individual compared to the actual cost a government would need to house a prisoner by themselves. The only difference between a private and public prison is the ownership; public prisons are completely owned by the government, while private prisons are owned by private companies. So, why is developing private prisons unethical and counterproductive? Well, maybe its the idea that a for-profit company is given incentive to incarcerate people or the fact their focus on profit leads to extremely poor conditions throughout the prison. Many things need to be considered when evaluating the trade offs of private prisons, but to fully understand how they operate, we must determine how they make money first.
In simple terms, private prison facilities make money by charging the government a certain amount of money per individual, which the government will accept if they deem it is less expensive than if the prison was publicly run.
On its surface, this seems absolutely harmless, but private prisons have other methods of making money and its safe to say they are extremely troubling. A report from In the Public Interest reveals information that insists state and local governments hand out contracts to private prisons in exchange for a guaranteed high occupancy rate. In fact, these occupancy rates are on the extreme side with the report suggesting many range from 90 to 100 percent prison occupancy. What this does is create mass incentive to incarcerate people, thus making it easier for the facility to reach its quota. Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Virginia are the primary states that are involved with this type of quota; the states are locked into contracts with private prisons, which explicitly state they must have a prison occupancy rate between 95-100 percent. However, the worst of the worst is by far Arizona, as the state is home to three private prisons that call for a 100 percent occupancy rate.
A quota that demands the occupancy rate be near 100 percent begs the question, what happens if the rate is not met? Much like everything that is funded by local and state governments, the taxpayers are on the hook for these quotas not being met. This is called a “low-crime tax”, a phenomenon that requires payments for empty prison cells, and of course the way the governments pay for this tax is through taxpayer dollars. For example, in the past decade, Colorado taxpayers have had to pay an additional 2 million dollars in taxes to cover the occupancy rate requirements that their private prison contracts compel the state to maintain.
Therefore, while private prisons rake in the benefits of having an extreme quota, regardless if the rate is met or not, the average American citizen is the one being hurt by this.
Moreover, private prisons appear to benefit from locking immigrants up in their facilities. Stemming from the lobbying the private prison industry takes part in, the “detention-bed mandate” was implemented, a policy mandating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement must keep 34,000 people locked up at a minimum. Most of these people are housed in private prisons, where the quota costs US taxpayers 2 billion dollars a year. Not only do they make money by locking immigrants up, but private prisons donate large amounts of money to politicians. Firms linked to the private prison industry have donated money to three candidates in the 2016 election cycle: Hilary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. Of course, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio dropped out of the race, but Clinton is still very much in the race. The leading candidate for the Democratic nomination has received 133,246 dollars from two of America’s largest private prison corporations: the GEO group and Corrections Corporation of America. Seems like a typical “you scratch my back, i scratch yours” deal between Clinton and the private prison industry.
Although there is mixed evidence, private prisons have been linked to a higher violence rate against prisoners and pretty terrible conditions. Private prisons have a tendency to develop high staff turnover rates, which could account for the increased violence rate, since less-experienced guards are more likely to be on the job.
Some private prisons are additionally home to horrific conditions, with auditors of a Texas private prison facility, claiming: the “cells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine”. Clearly, although this is probably not the cases for all private prisons, these absurd conditions can be attributed to money. If a company’s primary focus is money, then what will that company do? The correct answer is they are going to try to spend the least amount of money possible in providing their services, thus increasing their margins when they generate income. The way I see it, private prisons are not real prisons; they are businesses that are going to try to conserve money whenever they can.
The 2016 election is going to basically dictate how the US deals with the private prisons going forward. To me, the only hope is Bernie Sanders. Being the only candidate that has thoroughly addressed the issue of Criminal Justice reform and the danger of private prisons, Sanders has detailed a plan to eradicate private prisons. The plan revolves around the passage of a bill called the Justice is Not For Sale Act, which would effectively do away with the extreme quotas that private prisons possess. In hopes of drastically reducing America’s enormous prison population, Sander’s belief is relieving the bed quota would lead to the government terminating private prison contracts. Whether this would be feasible or not, due to the fact there would be immense opposition Sander’s plan, is for a different article, but as we have seen throughout his campaign run, Bernie Sanders is extremely consistent and willing to make wholesale change to this country.
With all that said, if the US is going to move forward with Criminal Justice reform, then for-profit prisons need to go; there are way too many adverse effects. High occupancy quotas, incarcerating immigrants for profit, along with more violence and terrible conditions highlight the need to get rid of these facilities. After all, are we really “the land of the free” if we are incarcerating people for profit?
–Contributed by R.A.