There is a lot of controversy surrounding the existence of private prisons, most notably due to malpractice in the US. Private prisons do exist in the UK as well (which has the most privatised prison system in Europe), but they are not as popular as in the US and they do not engage in the same level of greed, corruption and injustice.
Many libertarians may wish to see the privatisation of many services which are currently publicly funded. Indeed, many libertarians are in favour of private prisons on the grounds that services are more efficiently run when they are free from over-regulation from the government. It should be kept in mind that private prisons are still subject to government controls. Private prison companies set up their own prisons or purchase the facility from the government. They then enter into agreements with the government which pays a monthly rate, say, for each prisoner kept in that facility. The only business client that private prisons have is the government – well in theory anyway; but as we will see, there is a great deal of corruption beneath the surface.
The first problem with prisons is that they have shown to be inefficient time and time again – a point which I will address later. In addition, the privatisation of prisons is controversial because it involves a system which profits from the incarceration of people. The more people that are incarcerated and for longer periods of time means higher profit margins for the prison. The term prison-industrial complex is used to attribute the rapid increase of the prison population to the political influence of private prison companies. To put this in perspective, the US contains 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s prisoners.
A libertarian insistence on privatising everything has to be balanced against the extreme wastefulness, ineffectiveness, greed, corruption and injustice that results from private prisons. In fact, any libertarian should be concerned about the violations of liberty that are associated with these institutions. These institutions must be monitored more closely, which is difficult since they rarely allow inspection by the government or the media. The documentarian Louis Theroux, for example, has said that he found it easy to gain access to public prisons, but was unable to gain any sort of glimpse into private prisons. This is because if the prisons were shown in a negative light, then this could jeopardise existing or potential contracts with the government.
There are many examples of this dark side to private prisons. In a particularly shocking case, Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella has been sentenced to prison for 28 years for conspiring with private prisons to give maximum sentences to juvenile offenders in exchange for bribes and other secret illegal payments amounting to millions of dollars. He was also ordered to pay $1.2m in restitution. It’s very strange that he didn’t have to pay more in restitution considering how much he received and the damage he had done. And what’s even worse is that the prisons involved have not been punished for essentially ruining the lives of thousands of young people. Upwards of 5,000 young men and women were unjustly penalised in the name of profit. For-profit prisons, therefore, offer a strong incentive for corruption.
For those who are convinced that privatisation fosters competition and therefore improved services, consider the following case. The FBI has begun an investigation of Corrections Corporation of America for their maintenance of Idaho’s largest private prisons. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centres – more than 67 in fact. The CCA was found to have severely understaffed the Idaho Corrections Center, known by many as ‘Gladiator School’ for the violent brawls that take place in the facility. The CCA admitted last year that it breached its $29m contract with the state by understaffing the Idaho prison by thousands of hours, with some guards having to work a full 48 hours straight! Hardly effective prison maintenance if you ask me. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the CCA for this embarrassing understaffing which in part is responsible for the violence in the Idaho prison. No inmate should suffer such threats to their health and safety.
Another investigation found that the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, a private prison in Ohio, had unacceptable conditions for inmates. There is inadequate staffing, delayed medical treatment (by up to 48 hours) and a lack of proper access to running water and toilets; often having to use plastic buckets for their waste. Michele Deitch, a criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs said, “The longer the contracts are, the more likely you are to give rise to poor conditions and problems. It gives the states very little leverage to demand improvements.” Other violations of the inmates’ health and safety included inadequate medical treatment for patients with diabetes and AIDS and poor sleeping conditions.
Justice Policy Institute is a non-profit organisation that challenges these shoddy practices by private prisons. In this report, they highlight how the CCA and prison companies like the GEO Group and Cornell Corrections lobby to ensure that private prisons spread as much as possible. As the report states: “Since 2003, CCA has spent upwards of $900,000 annually on federal lobbying…companies like CCA and GEO continue to pay lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote their business interest in Congress.” In 2011, GEO spent possibly up to $200,000 on lobbying in just a 3 month period. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying.
It has been argued that CCA successfully pushed the ‘three strikes’ legislation which allows state courts to impose harsher sentences on habitual offenders who are guilty of convicted or committing 3 serious offences. To put it in other words: ‘3 strikes and you’re out!” A law based on the rules of baseball; how appropriate. Such ridiculous legislation means that if you are convicted of possessing marijuana (a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin) then you can be jailed for life. Of course, the incentive for passing the ‘three strikes’ legislation is that it extends prison terms around the country, meaning more money for the prison corporations and less freedom for inmates. It has also been claimed the CCA pushed for the ‘truth in sentencing’ (TIS) legislation which aims to abolish or curb parole so that convicts have to serve the prison time they have been sentenced to.
Escapes are also much more common in private prisons than they are in public prisons, which of course poses a massive risk to public safety. Instances of physical and sexual abuse are also rampant in private prisons – this report by the US Department of Justice found that 9.5% of inmates in private detention centres become victims of sexual abuse. Rates of re-offending are also much higher in private juvenile facilities than in state-run facilities.
In another report, Banking on Bondage, ACLU concluded based on its findings that “…the private prison industry rakes in profits by obtaining government money in increasing amounts, by depriving Americans of liberty in even greater numbers, and potentially by cutting corners at the expense of public safety and prison security.” Companies like CCA which lobby to buy and run state prisons have to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in exchange so that it is a worthwhile investment for the state. Having a 90% occupancy rate means that there are more incentives for arrests for minor crimes – such as drug offences – which private prisons thrive on.
Moreover, there is simply no evidence that private prisons are a more cost-effective way to incarcerate criminals than public prisons. By seeking to draw in more juveniles for longer periods, these private prisons are creating a permanent underclass of people who remain uneducated and unemployable. This is even worse for black and Latino males in America, who are even more over-represented in private prisons than they are in public prisons.
Let’s also bear in mind how much money private prisons make from the war on drugs. Those convicted of drug offences make up a huge proportion of their inmates. It has been claimed, therefore, that companies such as CCA lobby to keep drugs illegal, not for arguments of public health, but because it guarantees them a constant influx of valuable non-violent offenders. In fact, policymaker Matt Stoller covered this very issue. He found that in a 2010 CCA regulatory document it states:
…any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
The document also warned about laws that could “lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release on good behaviour.” So much then for private prisons being concerned about fair punishment and rehabilitation, the true objectives of prison. Other worries were raised about “reductions in crime rates or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.” Reduced sentences, good behaviour and fewer arrests – these are all business risks. The higher the rates of re-offending the better. Clearly, private prison companies do not care about reducing crime – their only concern is about maximising profit.
Perhaps the private sector has no business getting involved with the prison system. The sole objectives of prisons should be deterrence, protection and rehabilitation, rather than profiting by depriving others of their liberty. It is highly questionable whether the criminal justice system should be a business.