Private Prisons–The Concept Isn't Working

Copyright 2020 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published online as a commentary on this website on November 23, 2020)


     Private prisons are a problem.

     Privatization began during the Reagan era, when the War on Drugs led to harsher sentencing and higher rates of incarceration. That gave rise to a surge in inmate population that our federal and state–run prisons couldn’t absorb. In our capitalistic setting, where greed can control, big companies saw an opportunity and jumped right in to fill the void.

     The concept has been justified by the theory of free markets―the greater efficacy of private enterprise as opposed to government bureaucracy. But the fallacy in the context of private prisons is that there isn’t a free market permitting competition.

     There’s only one customer―the government, and one business―the prison owner. How do we assure that the prison owner will do the job? Who’s going to monitor work quality, medical care and reasonable pay?

     Private prisons account for only a small percentage of our total prisons. Yet, they’ve grown at a disproportionate rate. According to a report by Tara Joy, published on the Justice Policy Institute’s website, from 1990 to 2005, private prisons’ populations increased by an astounding 1,600 percent.

     A fact sheet updated in August 2018 by The Sentencing Project (sentencingproject.org) reported that private prisons in the U. S. incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, an increase of 47% since 2000. Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons, in 2016 incarcerated the largest number of people in private prisons, 13,692, among the states. That number represented 8.54% of the total prison population in the state.

     This rate of growth has continued despite serious criticisms from penal experts, journalists and political pundits that privatization is not only wrong but has provided few benefits if any to our criminal justice system. See, for instance, Paul Krugman’s commentary, Trump and the profiteering merchants of detention, in the New York Times’ July 8, 2019 edition.

     Privatization is a disservice.

     The companies running these prisons have enormous profit margins, standing to make more money if more individuals are sentenced. So, they work hard to influence policy and to push for harsher sentencing laws.

     In June 2011, the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization that advances policies promoting justice, issued a report. It detailed how prison corporations use lobbyists, campaign contributions, and relationships with policy makers to further their own agendas.

     The Institute pointed out that the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company, spent $17.4 million on lobbying in the last 10 years and $7.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012.

     It’s disputed whether private prisons save money or cost more, despite initial claims that private companies could operate them at much lower costs.

     In January 2012, Cody Mason authored a report published by The Sentencing Project in January 2012. He countered the argument that prisons can be a job creator, citing a West Texas venture gone wrong.

     “In 2000 the West Texas town of Littlefield used city bonds to build a prison to be managed by Wackenhut Corrections. There was hope that this would increase revenue and job opportunities, but the prison closed after it was ’plagued by mismanagement, riots, and an inmate suicide.’ Wackenhut soon abandoned the facility and the town was forced to raise taxes, cut services, and eliminate jobs in order to manage the resulting $9 million debt left by the prison.

     “This case is not unique, and recent research has found evidence that even under normal circumstances ’prisons have not . . . [made] positive contribution[s] to local employment growth,’ [quoting from a 2010 report appearing in the Social Science Quarterly].

     “As in Littlefield, prison construction can actually leave communities in a worse situation than they were before.”

     If the rapid growth of private prisons continues, we will perpetuate the prison owners’ high profit margins, which they often earn in harmful ways―lowering operating costs and cutting corners, such as hiring fewer employees.

     Mason noted that private prison employees earn $5,327 less in annual salaries for new recruits and $14,901 less in total annual salaries than their government–employed counterparts and receive 58 fewer hours of training. These practices lessen security and create employee turnover problems.

     Our citizens deserve better.

     Yet the status quo continues―private companies put more people behind prison bars to profit off them.

     All of us should join what I believe is a growing opposition to for–profit incarcerations of our helpless and increasing prison populations. Strong public support, I believe, would eventually turn around what I deem a betrayal of our country’s democratic values.