Approximately 2.1 million individuals are incarcerated in the United States today, the highest per capita figure of any nation in the world. Private prisons owned and managed by corporations house about 8% of this population. Although it controls a small percentage of “the market”, the private prison industry wields a disproportionate impact. It contributes in powerful and sinister ways to our national “culture of punishment.”
In 2015 twenty-one states had contracts with private prisons. Texas leads all states with about 14,000. Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Arizona all have more than 7,500. Six states have banned the use of private prisons since 2000.
The industry is highly responsive to national policy on criminal justice. It peaked in the mid-1990’s after President Clinton’s crime bill legislation in 1994 which dramatically increased federal funding for prison construction. It declined after 2010 in the face of national concern about the costs of mass incarceration; and became precarious when the Obama administration issued a memorandum terminating federal use of private prisons in August, 2016.
It has found new life, however, with the “law and order” stance of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It has also proved its ability to adapt, like a virus, to new markets. Responding to national policy criminalizing immigrants, it began to build detention facilities for this population. The private prison industry now manages 62% — over 350,000 individuals — of all immigrant facilities beds.
The goal of the criminal justice system should be to prepare prisoners to become productive members of society when they have finished serving their sentence, yet the goal of a private, for-profit prison seems to be diametrically opposed to these ideals. Incentives exist to maximize profits, either by reducing costs through minimal protection for and services to prisoners, maximizing the number of prisoners and the length of prison sentences, or both.
In fact, the main ways that private prisons seek to save money often lead to less security, less safety, and fewer rehabilitative services for prisoners, seemingly contradicting the inherent purpose of prison.
Ideally, there would be as few incarcerated individuals as possible, but Contractual Occupancy Requirements that typically ensure that private prisons are at least 80 percent full run counter to these goals. As a result, prisoners are often sent to private prisons instead of publicly run prisons, which is a significant waste of money.
The industry works with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit trade group through which conservative state legislators and corporations develop model legislation that is shared and often adopted by states. For several years, a leader of the for-profit prison industry was the chair of the ALEC’s policy task force.
At the end of the day, then, perhaps the most compelling argument against private prisons is that investors gain when individuals are put in jail. The industry is driven by the financial incentive toward punishment with a result far more damaging than the impact on individual lives. It is a lobbying force that shapes our “culture of punishment” by pushing national policy toward greater mass incarceration.
Clergy for a New Drug Policy endorses the abolition of the privatized prison industry and the termination of all state and federal contracts with for-profit companies for the building of prisons and the housing of prisoners.
Privatization of Prisons In the News
The Questions Private Prisons Raise
The Christian Century – June 6, 2018