Recent events in Alabama have brought national attention to the issue of prison privatization. Agricultural labor shortages have arisen as undocumented immigrants flee the state to escape harsh new laws. Meanwhile, newly detained immigrants are housed in private facilities and forced to work in the fields. Prison privatization is not limited to immigration detention, however, and the practice has been gaining momentum over the last two decades.
Faced with fiscal crises, many states are arriving at bipartisan agreements that overcrowded prisons must become a focus in order to reduce budget deficits. Unfortunately, instead of addressing the root problems of mass incarceration by reforming sentencing laws and scaling back the War on Drugs, many states have turned to prison privatization as a solution; from 1990 to 2009, the number of people incarcerated in private facilities increased by more than 1600%. But privatization is no solution. It only serves to exacerbate the problem and corrupt the prison system.
The largest private prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, have spent millions of dollars trying to convince federal and state legislators that privatization saves taxpayer money without sacrificing tight security and adequate conditions for prisoners. However, the evidence supporting this claim has been mixed at best. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that promised cost savings “have simply not materialized.” When cost savings are reported, they are often mitigated by private prisons’ tendency to refuse high-cost inmates.
Even if cost savings were substantial, prison privatization is intrinsically incompatible with the supposed goals of the U.S. prison system. Private prisons have few incentives to pursue meaningful rehabilitation or reduce recidivism rates. In fact, they have a vested interest in the continuation of the United States’ incomparably high incarceration rates. The CCA acknowledged this fact in its 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission: “[Our] growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns…. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities….”
In order to ensure a steady flow of inmates, and thus a steady flow of profits, private prison corporations lobby for “tough on crime” laws that lock up petty offenders for long periods of time and do little to curb crime rates. They have historically enjoyed close ties with state legislators through conferences hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which advocates harsh sentencing laws. At the conferences, corporations write “model bills” with legislators that have contributed to the escalation of mass incarceration.
While most lobbying efforts are legal, though ethically dubious, one extreme example of corporate influence is the high-profile “kids for cash” scandal that made headlines in February: A Pennsylvania judge accepted nearly $1 million in kickbacks from the developer of private juvenile facilities in exchange for sentencing young defendants to prison for minor offenses. Meanwhile, those sent to private prisons cannot be assured of adequate treatment, as there have been several recent cases of private prisons with substandard conditions and high levels of violence, including one in Idaho dubbed the “gladiator school.”
The privatization of prisons corrupts the judicial system and avoids the tough but necessary task of reforming the overly harsh sentencing laws that have resulted in mass incarceration. Regardless of dubious claims of decreased costs, for-profit prisons have perverse incentives and conflicts of interest that prevent them from prioritizing humane conditions, rehabilitation, and low recidivism.
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