Private Prisons — Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: Frank Schulenburg, “The Sprawling San Quentin Prison Complex,” wikipedia.org, Mar. 18, 2017

Prison privatization generally operates in one of three ways: 1. Private companies provide services to a government-owned and managed prison, such as building maintenance, food supplies, or vocational training; 2. Private companies manage government-owned facilities; or 3. Private companies own and operate the prisons and charge the government to house inmates. [1]

In the United States, private prisons have their roots in slavery. Some privately owned prisons held enslaved people while the slave trade continued after the importation of slaves was banned in 1807. Recaptured runaways were also imprisoned in private facilities as were black people who were born free and then illegally captured to be sold into slavery. Many plantations were turned into private prisons from the Civil War forward; for example, the Angola Plantation became the Louisiana State Penitentiary (nicknamed “Angola” for the African homeland of many of the slaves who originally worked on the plantation), the largest maximum-security prison in the country. In 2000, the Vann Plantation in North Carolina was opened as the private, minimal security Rivers Correctional Facility (operated by GEO Group), though the facility’s federal contract expired in Mar. 2021. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Inmates in private prisons in the 19th century were commonly used for labor via “convict leasing” in which the prison owners were paid for the labor of the inmates. According to the Innocence Project, Jim Crow laws after the Civil War ensured the newly freed black population was imprisoned at high rates for petty or nonexistent crimes in order to maintain the labor force needed for picking cotton and other labor previously performed by enslaved people. However, the practice of convict leasing extended beyond the American South. California awarded private management contracts for San Quentin State Prison in order to allow the winning bidder leasing rights to the convicts until 1860. Convict leasing faded in the early 20th century as states banned the practice and shifted to forced farming and other labor on the land of the prisons themselves. [2] [3] [7] [8] [9] [10]

What Americans think of now as a private prison is an institution owned by a conglomerate such as CoreCivic, GEO Group, LaSalle Corrections, or Management and Training Corporation. This sort of private prison began operations in 1984 in Tennessee and 1985 in Texas in response to the rapidly rising prison population during the war on drugs. State-run facilities were overpopulated with increasing numbers of people being convicted for drug offenses. Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) first promised to run larger prisons more cheaply to solve the problems. In 1987, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now GEO Group) won a federal contract to run an immigration detention center, expanding the focus of private prisons. [11] [12] [13]

In 2016, the federal government announced it would phase out the use of private prisons: a policy rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the Trump administration but reinstated under President Biden. However, Biden’s order did not limit the use of private facilities for federal immigrant detention. 20 US states did not use private prisons as of 2019. [11] [12] [14]

In 2019, 115,428 people (8% of the prison population) were incarcerated in state or federal private prisons; 81% of the detained immigrant population (40,634 people) was held in private facilities. The federal government held the most (27,409) people in private prisons in 2019, followed by Texas (12,516), and Florida (11,915). However, Montana held the largest percentage of the state’s inmates in private prisons (47%). [11]

Should Prisons Be Privatized?

Pro 1

Privatizing prisons can reduce prison overpopulation, making the facilities safer for inmates and employees.

According to Emily Widra, staff member at the Prison Policy Initiative, overpopulation is “correlated with increased violence, lack of adequate health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and reduced visitation.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks have been even higher as the infection rates were higher in prisons operating at 94% to 102% capacity than in those operating at 84% capacity. [15]

In 2020, nine state prison systems were operating at 100% capacity or above, with Montana at the highest with 121%. Another nine state systems were operating at 90% to 99% capacity or above. The Bureau of Prisons (the US federal system) was operating at 103% capacity. [15]

Austill Stuart, Director of Privatization and Government Reform at the Reason Foundation, explained, “As governments at every level continue to face financial pressures and challenges delivering basic services, contracting provides a tool that enables corrections agencies to better manage costs, while also delivering better outcomes. Performance-based contracts for private prisons, especially contracts tied to reducing recidivism rates, have the possibility of delivering significant improvements that, over the long-term, reduce the overall prison population and help those who are released from jail stay out for good.” [16]

Private prisons can offer overcrowded, underfunded, and overburdened government prisons an alternative by simply removing prisoners from overpopulated state and federal prisons and housing the inmates in a private facility. As prisoner populations lower, so too will the dangers correlated with overcrowding.

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Pro 2

Private prisons can transform the broken government-run prison system.

As Adrian Moore, PhD, Vice President of policy at Reason Foundation, explained, “private prisons are a tool, and like all tools, you can use them well or use them poorly.” [17]

Examples of using private prisons well include some private prisons in Australia and New Zealand that have performance-based contracts with the government, The prisons earn “bonuses for doing better than government prisons at cutting recidivism. They get an even bigger bonus if they beat the government at reducing recidivism among their indigenous populations. And prison companies are charged for what the government deems as unacceptable events like riots, escapes and unnatural deaths.” [18]

As the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University explained, by implementing those sorts of contracts, “the private sector was responsible for designing the solution that would achieve the desired social outcome.” [19]

Oliver Brousse, Chief Executive of the John Laing Investment Group, which built a prison in New Zealand with such a contract, explained, “The prison is designed for rehabilitation. The strength of these public-private partnerships is that they bring the best practices and innovation from all over the world, allowing local authorities to benefit from not only private capital but also from the best people and best practices from other countries.” [18]

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Pro 3

Private prisons offer innovative programs to lower the rates of re-imprisonment.

Recidivism is the tendency of those who have committed a criminal act to commit another criminal act, likely landing them back in prison.

GEO Group Inc., an American private prison conglomerate, offers individual treatment plans, drug abuse education and treatment, adult education GED preparation, life skills courses, parenting and family reintegration, anger management, and work readiness vocational skills. The programs are offered as in-custody, residential, and non-residential options, allowing people to access the programs while in prison, out on parole or probation, and while reintegrating into their communities. [20]

Rachael Cole, former Public-Private Partnership Integration director for the New Zealand Department of Corrections, argued, “If we want to establish a prison that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration, we have to give the private sector the space to innovate. If we don’t give them the opportunity to do things differently, we will just get back what we already have.” [18]

A New Zealand prison operated by Serco, a British company, has men make their own meals, do their own laundry, schedule their own family and medical appointments, and maintain a resume to apply for facility jobs. The prison also responds to the job market: opening cafes to train the men as baristas when coffee shop jobs soared outside prison. Another prison in New Zealand includes a cultural center for Maori inmates, designed to reduce recidivism amongst indigenous populations. [18] [21]

Programs that focus on inmate reentry into society and deal with drug and other abuses can lower recidivism rates, which in turn can lower prison populations and lessen overcrowding and related dangers.

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Con 1

Private prisons exploit employees and prisoners for corporate gain.

Private prisons paid staff $0.38 less per hour than public prisons, $14,901 less in yearly salaries, and required 58 fewer hours of training prior to service than public prisons, leaving staff less prepared to do their jobs, contributing to a 43% turnover rate compared to 15% for public prisons. Several private prisons have been fined for understaffing, and leaving too few guards and staff to maintain order in the facilities. [22] [23]

Ivette Feliciano, PBS NewsHour Weekend producer and reporter, explained that a report from Michael Horowitz, JD, Justice Department Inspector General, found that “per capita, privately-run facilities had more contraband smuggled in, more lockdowns and uses of force by correctional officers, more assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates of correctional officers, more complaints about medical care, staff, food, and conditions of confinement, and two facilities were housing inmates in solitary confinement to free up bed space. The findings also highlighted chronic understaffing as the root of many problems.” [24]

The use of private prisons resulted in 178 more prisoners per population of one million. Each prisoner costs about $60 per day, resulting in $1.9 to $10.6 million in gains for private prisons for new prisoners. And, when private prisons are used, sentences are longer. [25] [26]

In prison, private companies can charge inflated prices for basic necessities such as soap and underwear. Communications, including phone calls and emails, also come at a steep price, forcing inmates to work for pennies ($1.09 to $2.75 per day at private prisons, or $0.99 to $3.13 in public prisons), or to rely on family to pay hundreds of dollars a month. [22] [27]

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Con 2

Privatizing prisons is costly and leaves the most expensive prisoners to public prisons.

A 2019 study of prisons in Georgia found state prisons cost approximately $44.56 per inmate per day. Private prisons cost about $49.07 per inmate per day. [28]

A 2014 study found the cost to incarcerate a prisoner for one year in a private prison was about $45,000, while the cost in a public prison was $50,000. The $5,000 savings is deceptive, however, because inmates in private prisons serve longer sentences, negating at least half of the savings, and recidivism rates are largely the same as in public prisons, further negating any savings. [29]

In Arizona, a 2011 audit found medium-security state inmates cost 8.7% less per day (between $1,679 and $2,834 per inmate) than those at private prisons. Even a 1999 meta-study of prisons concluded, “private prisons were no more cost-effective than public prisons.” [30] [31]

The lack of per-prisoner savings is striking considering most private prisons only house minimum- and medium-security prisoners, who are less expensive to incarcerate than death row inmates, maximum-security inmates, or those with serious medical conditions whom the state has to house. [32]

Private prisons also often charge governments for empty prison beds, resulting in excess costs for the governments. [24]

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Con 3

All prisons—not just privately operated ones--should be abolished.

Author Rachel Kushner explained, “Ninety-two percent of people locked inside American prisons are held in publicly run, publicly funded facilities, and 99 percent of those in jail are in public jails. Every private prison could close tomorrow, and not a single person would go home. But the ideas that private prisons are the culprit, and that profit is the motive behind all prisons, have a firm grip on the popular imagination.” [33]

Following that logic, Holly Genovese, PhD student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argued, “Anyone who examines privately owned US prisons has to come to the conclusion that they are abhorrent and must be eliminated. But they can also be low-hanging fruit used by opportunistic Democrats to ignore the much larger problem of — and solutions to — mass incarceration… Private prisons should be abolished. But if the problem is the profit — institutions unjustly benefiting from the labor of incarcerated people — the fight against private prisons is only a beginning. Political figures and others serious about fighting injustice must engage with the profit motives of federally and state-funded prisons as well, and seriously consider the abolition of all prisons — as they are all for profit.” [34]

As Woods Ervin, a prison abolitionist with Critical Resistance, explained, “we have to think about the rate at which the prison-industrial complex is able to actually address rape and murder. We’ve spent astronomical amounts of our budgets at the municipal level, at the federal level, on policing and caging people. And yet I don’t think that people feel any safer from the threat of sexual assault or the threat of murder. What is the prison-industrial complex doing to actually solve those problems in our society?” Abolitionists instead focus on community-level issues to prevent the concerns that lead to incarceration in the first place. Eliminating private prisons still leaves the problems of mass incarceration and public prisons. [35]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should prisons be privatized? Explain your answer.

2. Should immigration detention centers be privatized? Explain your answer.

3. Take the debate about private prisons a step further and consider prison abolition. What are the pros and cons? Which side of the debate do you most agree with? Explain your answers.

Take Action

1. Evaluate the public benefits of private prisons with Alexander T. Tabarrok.

2. Consider the statistics on private prisons with The Sentencing Project.

3. Analyze the business model and problems with private prisons at Investopedia.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

1.Andrew G. Coyle, “Prison,” britannica.com, Mar. 9, 2021
2.Maurice Chammah, “Prison Plantations,” themarshallproject.org, May 1, 2015
3.David Love, “America’s Private Prison Industry Was Born from the Exploitation of the Slave Trade,” atlantablackstar.com, Sep. 3, 2016
4.Annys Shin, “Back to the Big House,” washingtoncitypaper.com, Apr. 14, 2000
5.Evan Taparata, “The Slave-Trade Roots of US Private Prisons,” pri.org, Aug. 26, 2016
6.Businesswire, “The GEO Group Announces Decision by Federal Bureau of Prisons to Not Rebid Its Contract for Rivers Correctional Facility,” businesswire.com, Nov. 23, 2020
7.The Innocence Project Staff, “The Lasting Legacy of Parchman Farm, the Prison Modeled after a Slave Plantation,” innocenceproject.org, May 29, 2020
8.Amy Tikkanen, “San Quentin State Prison,” britannica.com, Aug. 4, 2017
9.Equal Justice Initiative, “Convict Leasing,” eji.org, Nov. 1, 2013
10.Whitney Benns, “American Slavery, Reinvented,” theatlantic.com, Sep. 21, 2015
11.The Sentencing Project, “Private Prisons in the United States,” sentencingproject.org, Mar. 3, 2021
12.The Week Staff, “The Private Prison Industry, Explained,” the week.com, Aug. 6, 2018
13.Madison Pauly, “A Brief History of America’s Private Prison Industry,” motherjones.com, July/Aug. 2016
14.Equal Justice Initiative, “President Biden Phases out Federal Use of Private Prisons,” eji.org, Jan. 27, 2021
15.Emily Widra, “Since You Asked: Just How Overcrowded Were Prisons Before the Pandemic, and at This Time of Social Distancing, How Overcrowded Are They Now?,” prisonpolicy.org, Dec. 21, 2020
16.Austin Stuart, “Private Prisons are Helping California and Can Be Used to Reduce Prison Population,” reason.org, Mar. 31, 2017
17.Mia Armstrong, “Here's Why Abolishing Private Prisons Isn't a Silver Bullet,” themarshallproject.org, Sep. 12, 2019
18.Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “How to Create More Humane Private Prisons,” brennancenter.org, Nov. 14, 2018
19.Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, “Designing a Public-Private Partnership to Deliver Social Outcomes,” beeckcenter.georgetown.edu, 2019
20.GEO Group, Inc., “GEO Reentry Services,” geogroup.com (accessed Sep. 29, 2021)
21.Serco, “Auckland South Corrections Facility (Kohuora),” serco.com (accessed Sep. 29, 2021)
22.Curtis R. Blakely and Vic W. Bumphus, “Private and Public Sector Prisons—A Comparison of Select Characteristics,” uscourts.gov, June 2004
23.Bella Davis, “Push to end private prisons stymied by concerns for local economies,” nmindepth.com, Feb. 26, 2021
24.Ivette Feliciano, “Private Prisons Help with Overcrowding, but at What Cost?,” pbs.org, June 24, 2017
25.Scott Weybright, “Privatized prisons lead to more inmates, longer sentences, study finds,” news.wsu.edu, Sep. 15, 2020
26.Shankar Vedantam, “How Private Prisons Affect Sentencing,” npr.org, June 28, 2019
27.Nicole Lewis and Beatrix Lockwood, “The Hidden Cost of Incarceration,” themarshallproject.org Dec. 17, 2019
28.AP, “Audit: Private Prisons Cost More Than State-Run Prisons,” apnews.com, Jan. 1, 2019
29.Andrea Cipriano, “Private Prisons Drive Up Cost of Incarceration: Study,” thecrimereport.org, Aug. 1, 2020
30.Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings,” nytimes.com, May 18, 2011
31.Travis C. Pratt and Jeff Maahs, “Are Private Prisons More Cost-Effective Than Public Prisons? A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Research Studies,” journals.sagepub.com, July 1, 1999
32.Alex Friedmann, “Apples-to-Fish: Public and Private Prison Cost Comparisons,” prisonlegalnews.org, Oct. 2016
33.Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” nytimes.com, Apr. 17, 2019
34.Holly Genovese, “Private Prisons Should Be Abolished — But They Aren’t the Real Problem,” jacobinmag.com, June 1, 2020
35.Gabriella Paiella, “How Would Prison Abolition Actually Work?,” gq.com, June 11, 2020