The U.S. has lead the way in business innovation for decades by branching out into previously untapped markets to go where others may not have thought to go. While there are many examples of companies going into markets to create good, such as with renewable energy sources, there are a few areas that many, including myself, believe should be left to the state. The privatization of prisons is an incredibly troubling prospect. While many people claim that it is bad enough having a government body handle matters of depriving people of their liberty to punish them for committing crimes, putting that responsibility in the hands of businessmen begs numerous questions about the quality of the facilities and staff as well as the possible ramifications of a "prison for profit" system. Before I explore these questions, I find that it would be beneficial to provide some statistics about this relatively new form of incarceration in the U.S.
Most of the prisons in the United States are still controlled by the local, state, or federal government, but since the 1980's we have seen a rise in privately owned and operated facilities mostly in the southern and western regions of the U.S. While most states only privatize certain aspects of their prisons such as laundry services and food preparation, the first example of an entirely privately owned and operated prison in the U.S. was in 1984 when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded a contract to take over a corrections facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee. Only a year after, the CCA made a bold move by offering to take over the entire state of Tennessee's correctional program for $200 million. Thankfully, due to strong opposition by state employees and concern from the state legislature, the CCA was denied this contract. Although they were temporarily defeated in this case, the CCA as well as other private prison organizations continued to expand their market by opening 153 private correctional facilities by December of 2000. The Sentencing Project, which has been a leader in researching and reforming sentencing and incarceration in the U.S. for 25 years, has reported that while the number of states having contracts with private prison companies has gone down between 1990 and 2010, the number of prisoners in private facilities has gone up dramatically.
Today, private companies which include CCA, the GEO group, Inc (formerly known as Wackenhut Securities), and Community Education Centers, operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult convicts. These private companies have also moved into the juvenile detention sector which, unlike the other branches of the corrections system, has a lot less safety risks involved. While private juvenile detention centers sound ok due to the lower security risk and maintenance costs associated with them, the Sentencing Project noted that GEO’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi is the subject of a federal investigation into brutality complaints. A lawsuit against it alleges inmates “live in unconstitutional and inhumane conditions and endure great risks to their safety and security.” This incident was thought to be caused by the higher employee turnover rates which are typically seen in these private institutions says the Sentencing Project. The staff effectiveness in private organizations also exhibits a lack of maintaining security protocol with visitors and prisoners which includes insufficient guard patrols and other various security risks. These security problems led to a prison break from an Arizona facility in which three dangerous convicts escaped and fled to Colorado where they killed a married couple before being arrested in Rifle, Colorado.
While the obvious security risks and living conditions in these private facilities are obvious due to their goal of lowering the bottom line, another concern looms overhead which is more troubling than the rest. The issue that I am concerned with is that if we get our prison system privatized, how long until we have inmate quotas in order to fill these prisons for the companies to make money? This could lead to private police being created which round up individuals for various "crimes" in order to ensure profitability for these companies. I know this idea seems pretty far-fetched, but then again, I never thought that I would see the day when prisons would be run by businesses. This "prison-for-profit" system may very well be a slippery slope that takes us to a place that would spit on the laws and liberty that we hold so dear. Private prisons such as the Baldwin prison in Michigan had three times as many violent incidents as the state’s other maximum security facilities. Is this risk really worth the "savings" that the government would see in this depressed economy? The private companies have enticed states with slashing the costs of incarcerating individuals, but where do those savings come from? From my experience it comes from understaffing, poor food and living conditions, and overcrowded facilities which offer very little, if any, benefit from the current system.
For more information on the Sentencing Project, visit their website at: