The concept of private ownership of prisons goes back to the 1800s. In 1852, San Quentin became the first privately owned, for-profit prison in the United States. For a long time, however, private prison facilities remained an unpopular industry. Around the 1980s when the “war on drugs” began, we saw an increase in incarceration rates and a growing desire to further privatize our economy. This allowed for a surge in private, for-profit prisons. The war on drugs created a problem within the state and federal prison systems. The overcrowding of prisons and increased costs to tax-payers both became partisan political issues. The political tension regarding the incarceration of criminals created a window for proponents to push for the use of private prisons.
While proponents of private prisons boast of the tax-saving benefits, for-profit incarceration presents contradictions that cannot be ignored. One inherent problem, making profits of the imprisonment of human beings, a morally ambiguous concept at the very least. Some experts believe that for-profit prisons save federal and state tax dollars, but this theory is not always entirely accurate. In Arizona for example, inmates in a private prison can cost approximately $1,600 more per year than an inmate housed in a state or federal prison.
Evaluating the privately owned prison model
Assessments conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections of the contracted prisons within the state found loopholes that made for profit prisons appear less expensive. In reality, contracted prions misrepresented costs associated with their day to day operations. Private corrections companies select which inmates they accept into their facilities. Private prisons admit the healthiest of inmates which skews the analysis of savings reported by supporters of the private prison system. Private prisons house inmates who are less expensive to care for than the declining or difficult inmate populations which the state and federal governments must house in tax-funded facilities (Corrections, 2015). The assessment also found that contracted prisons cut training programs for staff making these programs insufficient and not in line with state guidelines. The evaluation also revealed a problem of overcrowding. Inmates were double-bunked and given limited storage space at the contracted prisons in the review conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections.
These evaluations show that for-profit prisons, while on paper appear cost-effective and advantageous over the state and federally funded prisons, the perceived costs savings come at the cost of employee training as well as human life. Private prisons choose the least expensive inmates, pack them into overcrowded cells and then cut training programs for employees who will be dealing with the inmates on a day to day basis. Private prisons leave the sickest and most expensive inmates for the state and federal systems to handle while saving costs on space and employee training.
The Moral Problem with Private Prisons
In addition to the problems mentioned above with private prisons, there is an even bigger morally controversial matter with ownership of private prisons. Within the for-profit prison model, exists an inherent and problematic conflict of interest. Incarceration serves as a punishment for criminal behavior while also providing an opportunity for rehabilitation with the idea of returning inmates into society as rehabilitated citizens. Private prisons, as a rule, make money and profits off of the imprisonment of criminals. This leaves no incentive to restore and return prisoners to society.
In fact, the rehabilitation and returning of prisoners to society are counterintuitive to the for- profit prison model. If private prisons implemented programs to reduce the number of repeat offenders, they would be taking money out of their own pockets. The model of private prisons directly contradicts the entire premise of U.S prison and justice systems. This is by far the most significant and most problematic issue facing the push for further privatization of the prison system in the United States.
Private prisons artificially deflate the costs associated with housing prisoners. When asked to compare the prices of housing inmates in government facilities compared to private institutions, supporters of private prisons do not provide a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis. This coupled with the fact that private prisons make more money by discouraging rehabilitation and encouraging laws which drive more inmates into their prisons shows the problems inherent to the private prison model.
Problems with the “war on drugs.”
Going back to the “war on drugs” of the 1980’s, the push for tougher laws and prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders flooded our prison system with inmates. Around the same time, there was a push for private ownership of prisons. The so-called “war on drugs” fed the private prisons with profitable inmates. Presently, a similar push for drug legislation and 1980’s-esqueeconomic policies remind us of the problems with capitalist ventures in morally ambiguous areas affecting real human lives.
This leaves the discussion open to the politically and morally questionable private prison system and the effect lobbyists have on legislation. Private prison lobbyists push to bring back the war on drugs which would funnel more and more non-violent offenders into private prisons for those prisons to make more money.
The “war on drugs,” a problematic and ineffective group of laws and legislative initiatives has been documented to disproportionately harm people of color and minorities. Non-violent offenders were pushed into the prison system instead of being given more appropriate sentences. This push for imprisoning drug offenders sent more people to our already crowded prisons and was ineffective in reducing the drug problems wreaking havoc in our nation’s streets. The only benefit seen by the war on drugs was the benefit given to the private prisons by pushing profitable prisoners into that system. Supporters of private jails struggle to bring back racist and ineffective legislation to serve as a source of income for these prisons. Private prisons have no other incentive to push for stricter sentences on drug offenses other than those inmates make them more money.
Studies conducted by state departments of correction reveal misconceptions with the idea that for private prisons save on tax dollars and these studies show problems with the private prison model. Opponents of the push for private prisons argue that there are no cost savings and when you look at the whole picture and there may be an increase in costs associated with private prison use. The moral questions of making money off the of incarceration of human beings ought to be enough to question the entire program of private incarceration and call for further investigation into the system of private ownership of prison facilities.