Private prisons in the United States have a long, and troubling history. Always mired in controversy, a number of corruption scandals and the Republican far right’s anti-immigration and tough-on- crime stance have in recent years propelled them into public focus. During the period from 1970 to 2005, when the number of people locked up in American prisons skyrocketed by 700 per cent, it became increasingly obvious that private prison complexes were motivated solely by generating as much profit as possible, without regard for other obvious problems that come with this attitude. As of 2015, it has developed into a $5bn industry, housing 7 percent of the nation’s state prisoners, 18 percent of its federal prisoners, and 65 percent of its detained illegal immigrants – more than 500,000 individuals in all. Let us make one thing clear from the outset. We are here not talking about outsourcing medical services, food catering, educational programs, inmate transportation and the like. There are many weighty reasons why such prison functions should be performed by private contractors. We are talking about entirely privatized prisons. These are places where the essential functions of the criminal justice system – to protect the public and to punish and rehabilitate the offenders – are in the hands of profit-seeking business entrepreneurs who have a financial interest in harsher sentencing and increased crime. The argument for private prisons is as simple as it is unfounded. They are, it is claimed, more cost-effective and more efficient than government-run prisons. The argument draws its force from the fact that many services are manifestly better performed by private companies than by the public sector – airlines, overnight shipping, higher education, and telecommunication spring to mind. But are private prisons not profitable? Yes, they are. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the two main operators, have both seen their stocks shot up around 100 percent since 2001. In fact, they are doing so well that major banks and investment funds, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, have begun investing in them.
So, we have to ask ourselves, how do GEO and CCA magically turn tax dollars into corporate profit. They do it by reducing the cost of housing the inmates. Simple as that. Facilities are understaffed with sometimes one floor of officers in a unit of 176 inmates. Two (2) corrections officers oversee a dining hall with 800 prisoners. Wardens make $9 an hour and are hired on the mere basis of possessing a valid driver’s license. Additionally, other cost-cutting measures are routinely enacted, including an absence of mental-health care, inadequate meals, and cherry-picking of cost-effective prisoners – the young and healthy, and minorities with poor legal representation are welcome. These are largely unregulated black holes where 16-year- old inmates are given to adult prisoners as sex toys. It’s too horrific contemplate. Read Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private
Prison Guard” in Mother Jones from June 2016. It will make you rethink the way you currently conceptualize prison.
While the government abdicates its responsibilities, the public looks away, and the prison stocks soar, private inmates – some of them not older than 13 – have their humanity beaten out of them. Oversight is soft and often performed by State monitors recruited from GEO and CCA. The profit-centered outlook inevitably leads cover-ups of mistreatment. These are not flaws in the system; it is part of its very logic. Like CIA’s rendition program and Blackwater’s Iraqi War contractors, the private prison system offers a way around regulations. Their records are often not subject to public access laws and disclosure rules.
Private prisons are instrumental in producing more criminals, new and previously unheard-of-crimes, and harsher sentencing. Like Big Oil and Big Pharma, Big Prison lobbies our elected and appointed officials, pushing their agenda for mass incarceration, immigration detention centers, and new, more crimes. All in the name of corporate gain, the bottom line of every argument. Did anyone miss the screaming conflict of interest here?
While it is in society’s interest to reduce crime and rehabilitate prisoners, it is in the private
prison industry’s interest to increase crime and keep prisoners locked up as long as possible. More crime, more beds, more profit. Private prisoners receive twice as many “prison conduct violations” than public ones. Consequently, they are less likely to get parole and serve on average two to three more months of prison time. Almost all government-run prisons offer vocational training compared to 44 percent of the private one. And why would they, when recidivism means more profit?
According to this twisted, corporate logic, higher unemployed is good, since it increases the
demand for prison beds.
Of course, we want our businesses to grow, the economy to flourish. But do we really want every kind of enterprise to succeed? Companies that have in its very DNA to foster crime, dehumanize minorities, and parasite on the system, we could do better without.
Private prisons are perhaps the most blatant example of a society that has succumbed to the corporate and ideological logic of private greed. A society so perverse that it has begun to view more crime as a social good.