The Privatisation of Prisons

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio estimates in a report on prison privatisation (.pdf) that nine percent of prisoners in the United States reside in private correctional institutions. Privatisation includes not just prisons, but also jails and detention facilities for immigrants; in fact, one of the first privatised corrections services in the United States was contracted for through the Immigration and Naturalisation service in 1984. Detention facilities on all levels are increasingly turning private and there are proposals in a number of states, including California, to sell correctional facilities to private companies in the interest of resolving budget problems.

In private prison contracts, companies agree to take over a prison, relieving government agencies and states of the expense of managing it. They do not do this out of charity, of course; private correctional companies are for-profit institutions, and some of that profit is extremely large. That same ACLU report notes that Corrections Corporation of America turned a cool $1.675 billion in profits last year. Private prisons are big business in the United States, and prisons are very much viewed as a growth industry, especially right now, with states casting about for solutions to their budget problems and corporations ready to take advantage of the pressing need for prison services, created through a complex of underfunding, mandatory sentencing laws, and a culture that prefers prison to rehabilitation or community-based services.

States claim that privatising prisons streamlines corrections services and saves money. Actual critical research on the topic begs to differ; private prisons are more expensive to administer, and they’re awarded multimillion dollar contracts annually with very little oversight. They are far less accountable to taxpayers than public facilities, which is saying something when you consider the fact that public prisons are notoriously secretive and conscientiously limit access by members of the public. Prison abolitionists and reformers have an extremely difficult time contacting prisoners, following up on reports of abuse, and reporting on conditions inside prisons when they’re public, and it’s virtually impossible with private institutions.

Private prisons are also less safe. The prison system is ostensibly designed to keep members of the general public safe, and private prisons fail in this mission, with far more prisoner escapes and other safety compromises. They are also less safe for inmates. Fewer controls and less oversight puts prisoners in dangerous positions, particularly for prisoners of colour (a large majority of the prison population, thanks to institutional racism), transgender prisoners, and other minorities. There are disproportionate numbers of deaths at private prisons; when a district attorney is protesting deaths in private prisons, you know you have a problem.

Furthermore, prison labour in private prisons is a big business. Writing for AlterNet, Rania Khalek notes that:

By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never late or absent because of family problems.

Contracts for prison labour are extremely lucrative and the government actively incentivises the use of prisoners as a labour pool, while providing limited worker protections. Prisoners, needless to say, do not receive anything even closely resembling minimum wage. Thus, companies get what amount to kickbacks from the government for using prisoners as a labour force which they can exploit and underpay. It’s a win-win situation that numerous large corporations across the United States take advantage of, and the private prison system is very much enmeshed in it as another source of potential profits. Prison services like food are also outsourced, creating ample room for corruption as prison officials pocket funds earmarked for food.

The interests of the for-profit prison industry are at a fundamental conflict with rehabilitative goals of imprisonment, which creates a market ripe for human rights violations. These companies have an active incentive to increase prisoner populations and extend sentences, because each prisoner represents a potential profit. Their approach to imprisonment is not rehabilitative in nature because they don’t want it to be.

With powerful lobbies behind them, for-profit prisons push legislators for longer sentences, mandatory sentencing, and tougher sentencing, resulting in the incarceration of minor offenders who flood the prison system for small offenses. Within their facilities, for-profit prisons are quick to find ways to extend sentences through writing prisoners up for infractions, thus assuring that at parole hearings, they are sent back to prison rather than being considered for parole, as they are clearly not reforming in prison.

Privatisation of government services in the United State is an increasing trend with very troubling implications. Government services, at their core, should not be about profits. As soon as profit becomes the driving force behind such services, they become less efficient, more expensive to run, and less productive. Adding to the costs the government needs to pay to provide services creates a false image of the expense associated with them; members of the public may start to oppose, for example, the provision of school lunches because of rising costs, when those costs have more to do with the use of private, for-profit companies than they do with the actual expense of getting food into school cafeterias.

Already, the populations of some states are starting to rebel against the prison-industrial complex, supporting early release over continued imprisonment because of the clear cost differential. Oddly enough, it is possible that the turn towards privatisation, paired with budget crises, may be making unlikely prison reformers out of ordinary citizens; perhaps for the wrong reasons, they nonetheless support decreases in the prison population to save money, and this will inevitably impact the juggernaut of the for-profit prison industry.