A private prison, which is also known as a private facility or for-profit prison, is where people are confined or incarcerated by a third party contracted by a government agency. Private prison companies enter into a contractual agreement with governments that commit prisoners into the facility then pay a per diem or monthly rate for each incarcerated individual.
Private prisons are being used all around the world, with the United Kingdom being the first nation in Europe to use prisons run by the private sector. Australia is also one of the first countries to use private prisons. The United States of America also employees this form of imprisonment.
As a matter of fact, several issues regarding private prisons have cropped up in America. A study by Anita Mukherjee, assistant professor of the Wisconsin School of Business, found that inmates who were held in private prisons in Mississippi from 1996 to 2004 served 4 to 7 percent longer than those who served similar sentences in public prisons.
In the US, the private prison industry is estimated to be worth $5 billion a year, with facilities used by cash-strapped states dealing with overcrowded public prisons. Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the US, and 40% of its prisoners are housed in private prisons.
Bernie Sanders, a Democratic senator running for the US presidency, announced at one of his campaign rallies that he is going to introduce legislation aimed at ending private prisons once Congress gets back in session. He said: “…I will be introducing legislation which takes corporations out of profiteering from running jails.”
A report from In the Public Interest called Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and ‘Low-Crime Taxes’ Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations highlighted the contracts exchanged between private prison companies and state and local governments. The contracts guarantee prison occupancy rates or force taxpayers to pay for empty beds if the prison population is reduced because of low crime rates or other factors. In fact, some of the contracts required prisons to be 90 to 100% occupied.
Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit private prison company in the US, issued a letter to 48 state governors in 2012. In that letter, the CCA offered to purchase and operate public state prisons, but required a 20-year contract that guarantees the prison cells have a 90% occupancy rate throughout the term. Although no state accepted the offer, there are a number of private prison companies that tack on similar occupancy guarantee provisions into their contracts.
These kinds of contracts are seen as not promoting rehabilitation, reducing crime or building communities. Rather, it’s a way to incentivize criminalization.
With clear evidence of money-making activities by private corporations, why then do privately run prisons still exist? Or why hasn’t anything been done to curb such behavior? What to supporters of these kinds of prisons like about the system?
To understand the reasoning behind those who support the system and those who are against it, here’s a look at the pros and cons of private prisons:
List of Pros of Private Prisons
1. It helps save money
Studies, although most of them are funded by the industry, reveal that states can save money by using for-profit prisons. However, these findings are refuted by academic or state-funded studies which highlight that private prisons are more likely to keep low-cost inmates and send others back to state-run prisons.
Proponents of privately run prisons argue that benefits of such a system include cost savings and efficiency of operation. However, research has cast doubt on the validity of those statements as evidence points to private prisons not being cost effect or even more efficient than public prisons. A review of the 24 studies on the cost effectiveness of private prisons revealed inconclusive results regarding cost savings, as well as there being no difference in cost effectiveness.
The US Bureau of Justice Statistics released the results of their study which found that cost savings promised by private prisons “have simply not materialized.” In fact, there are studies which show that for-profit prisons actually cost more than public ones.
Also, the cost benefit of private prisons is misleading given that a lot of these kinds of prisons don’t accept inmates who are costly to house. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 pointed out that private prisons are indeed more costly, more violent and less accountable than their public counterparts, plus they are a major contributor to increased mass incarceration.
2. It helps generate income for the surrounding community
Despite critics questioning the quality of private prisons as well as their promise of economic benefits, federal and state officials carry on and contract private companies to run prisons and immigration detention centers.
In 2004, officials in Hardin, Montana agreed to the building of a private prison in town. The agreement was that the county would pay for the prison while the state or federal government would be in charge of filling it up. As a result of this, Hardin would get tax revenues, new jobs and economic benefits while a private prison company would be in charge of running the facility and get something off of the profits.
That facility was realized in 2007: the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility. It has 464 beds and cost $27 million to put up. But the sad part is that the facility has remained empty and unused because the builder wasn’t able to land a contract with the state or federal government for inmates.
In a desperate attempt to fill their prison, Two Rivers proposed – in 2009 – to house inmates from Guantanamo Bay. However, that didn’t happen.
Hardin isn’t the only one suffering from this problem as several others in places across America have built private prisons for economic benefit but instead have been struggling to recoup what they spent.
List of Cons of Private Prisons
1. It is not run with safety and efficiency in mind
There have been escapes from private prisons. One such case is that of three murderers who escaped the minimum/medium security Kingman Prison in Arizona. The prison is operated by Management Training Corporation. Arizona Attorney Genera Terry Goodard said “I believe a big part of our problem is that the very violent inmates, like the three that escaped, ended up getting reclassified [as a lower risk] quickly and sent to private prisons that were just not up to the job.” It was also revealed that the Arizona facility had inadequate patrols and prisoner movement, excessive false alarms, a lax culture and inconsistencies in visitor screening procedures.
2. It costs more than public prisons
University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Marie Gottschalk makes an argument that the prison industry “engages in a lot of cherry-picking and cost-shifting to maintain the illusion that the private sector does it better for less.” She also notes that studies have proved that private facilities are more dangerous for correctional officers and inmates than public ones because of cost-cutting measures such as lesser spending on correctional officer training (as well as paying them lower wages) and the provision of only the most basic medical care for inmates.
3. It leads to more violence and escapes
Lower staffing levels and training at private prisons lead to an increase in violence and escapes. According to a nationwide study, assaults on guards by inmates were 49% more frequent in private prisons than in those run by the government. In that same study, it was also revealed that assaults on fellow inmates were 65% more frequent in for-profit facilities.
A report by two journalists, Margaret Newkirk and William Selway, highlighted how inadequate staff training led to jail violence in Mississippi. The journalists made mention that the staff to prisoner ration was 1/120. One bloody riot in the prison resulted in six inmates being rushed to the hospital with one having permanent brain damage. When the riot took place, the staff did nothing and just waiting for the event to end because there were more prisoners than there were staff members. Even more disturbing, a former inmate at the prison revealed that staff are also in charge of smuggling in items into the prison, including weapons.