The Problem with Privatized Prisons in the USA

Prison cell

By Josh Sager 

 

The Florida state legislature is currently debating whether to pass a bill intended to drastically expand the privatization of prisons in the state. Under Senate Bill 2038, 30 prisons run by the state would be contracted out to private corporations.

Privatized prisons operate similarly to hotels, as the state contracts them to house and care for prisoners, wherein they are paid per prisoner. Unlike government-controlled public prisons, private prisons are wholly run by large corporations, driven – as all corporations are – by the profit motive.

Over two-thirds of private prisons in the USA are under the ownership of two major companies: CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group. As with the rest of the country, these two groups currently operate most of the private prisons in Florida and have been actively supporting SB 2038 in the state legislature since its introduction in January. In the past 5 years, these two corporations have spent over $2 million in lobbying and direct political contributions to support prison privatization in Florida alone.

The primary argument in support of SB2038 is the claim that private prisons are less expensive to taxpayers than those which are government-run. The proponents of prison privatization in Florida claim that the current bill will save the state 7% in operating costs per year (approximately $30 million per year). This claim is questionable, as numerous studies in states with private prisons have shown that private prisons actually cost the taxpayers more than government-run ones.

A 2010 study by the Arizona Department of Corrections showed that while private prisons utilize many cost-cutting methods, they actually cost the state more than public prisons. Any money which is saved through cost-cutting is ultimately taken as a profit by the corporation which owns the prison, a loss which is not present in publicly owned prisons. Cost-cutting measures that have been utilized to increase private prison profits include cutting wages, the reduction of employee benefits, not hiring union guards, pushing sick or disabled prisoners back into the public prison system, and reducing rehabilitation services to prisoners.

Like any business, private prisons seek to cut costs and maximize revenue in order to increase profit to the shareholders. Non-union guards are paid less than unionized guards, thus private prisons can reduce the cost of staffing their prisons at the expense of their workforce’s quality. Private prisons often buy the least expensive goods and services available in the keeping of their prisoners in order to turn the maximum profit; prisoner medical care is an area of particular concern in this reduction in service quality problem. As prisoners are literally a captive marketplace, they cannot go out and get superior goods if those given to them are inferior. Educational and treatment programs in private prisons are virtually nonexistent due to their costs.

In addition to cutting the costs of operation, private prisons have consistently pushed high upkeep prisoners back into the public system. Those with illnesses, both mental and physical, are more expensive to house, thus private prisons will often avoid them. By cherry-picking low-upkeep prisoners, private prisons artificially deflate their costs in order to attract contracts and make a profit; but this policy is untenable if there are a large number of private prisons, since somebody has to take care of the expensive prisoners too.

As private prisons are demonstrably more expensive than public prisons, and often cut costs at the expense of their workers, what could explain their expansion in Florida and the South in general? The spread of private prisons throughout the U.S. has little to do with their efficiency -- but it might have something to do with the fact that they spend several million dollars per year in lobbying and campaign contribution to politicians.

The push for private prisons, whether in Florida or elsewhere, demonstrates several dangerous trends for our penal system: If corporations make money off of imprisoning people, there is a perverse incentive for them to increase the number of people locked up; in addition to supporting locking more people up, corporations have similar incentives to increase the severity of sentences and criminalized offenses in order to increase their occupancy. By ensuring that more people are imprisoned for longer, and by reducing the quality of living conditions inside of the prison, a corporation is able to draw more profit.

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 As seen in the debate over Florida’s SB2038, private prison lobbies spend massive amounts of money to affect the laws that can make them money. Prison lobbies have advocated for increased immigration laws, harsher sentencing requirements, three-strikes laws, and the continuation of the war on drugs in most state legislatures. The Arizona SB1070 “Papers Please” law is probably the most famous example of legislation which was drafted by private prison lobbyists for the benefit of their bottom line. Non-violent offenders, such as those caught up in drug or immigration cases, are easier to imprison than violent offenders because they are lower risk, thus private prisons can make a high profit off of these people.

By lobbying states to increase the spread of three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the harshness of sentencing, prisoners are sent to jail for longer periods of time. As private prisons rely upon occupancy to make a profit, longer prison stays equal more sustainable profits for the private prisons.

The 2008 scandal in Pennsylvania, where juvenile court judges were bribed by an owner of two private prisons in order to sentence children to private prison facilities, is the perfect example of how the profit incentive can distort the justice system. Several judges were paid by owner Robert Mericle to sentence innocent or first-time offending minors to substantial prison sentences. The fact that these judges were paid by the head has led to the case being called the “kids for cash” scandal.

In addition to the ineffectiveness and perverse incentives of private prisons, these institutions fall into a legal black hole where civil rights are concerned. The civil rights of prisoners in private prisons are not as strongly protected as those of prisoners in publicly run prisons.

In the recent case of Minneci v. Pollard, the Supreme Court decided that prisoners of private prisons are not able to sue the corporation which owns a prison if that prison infringes upon their rights; these prisoners can sue the individual guards of the prison, but neither the state nor the prison corporation are liable for damages. If Florida is to pass the privatization of its prisons, the prisoners in these institutions will have their civil rights directly threatened, as there will be no method accountability for any damage done to them.

When combined with the perverse incentive to imprison more people and to cut costs, the decrease in liability to the private prisons creates a situation where huge profits are garnered through imprisoning a significant portion of the U.S. population. Private prison corporations lobby politicians through donations in order to change the laws to imprison more people, regardless of the social impact. Illegal immigrants, the poor, and minorities are often the most affected by these policies. The vicious cycle of imprisonment and profit targets those who have the smallest voices in society for the benefit of those who own the correction.

Florida is currently on the edge of one of the largest expansions of prison privatization in US history, a situation relevant to those of us who fear what could happen if justice becomes subordinate to the pursuit of profit.

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published this page in Blog 2012-05-18 09:53:12 -0400

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