IN THEORY, PRIVATELY RUN PRISONS are simply another municipal resource that for-profit management companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group believe can be run cheaper and more efficiently than in the hands of government agencies: a free market alternative to the bureaucratic red tape of waste and regulation in the world of penitentiary administration. But running a penitentiary is not the same as running a municipal sewage authority. Having a monetary value tied to human incarceration and justice creates a deeply perverse incentive that should not exist in the world of commerce. When the for-profit prison industry places the iron fist of criminal justice in the invisible hands of the market and sells it as a cost-cutting measure, it is hard not to interpret as anything but the predatory capitalism of a self-perpetuating slave state.
Most criticisms of privatizing prisons have come in the form of labor, management, and financial issues. This is an argument of numbers in which critics hope to show that the same cost-cutting measures that enable private prisons to be profitable are also to blame for subverting the security, accountability, and quality of life standards of those facilities. The promise of a more efficient penitentiary runs in stark contrast to various, well-publicized examples of private prisons accused of devolving into “gladiator schools” of violence and decay, run by fewer, inexperienced, undertrained, and underpaid staff who may not respond to such chaos responsibly. Cost overruns, sometimes well above what any state-run facility would charge, often eliminate any pretense of a financial benefit. Accusations of corruption, cronyism, and excessive CEO pay are commonplace.
One private prison has been accused of colluding with gang members to help manage inmates and save on staffing costs. Others have actively avoided housing sick inmates, leaving the higher medical care costs that those patients might incur to the state and federal penitentiaries. The legalization of interstate prisoner exchanges has only enabled this practice further. Private prisons can now cherry-pick low-cost, low-threat inmates, not just from other state-run prisons nearby, but also from across the country, to fill empty beds and maximize cell occupancy. Prisoners can be transferred to the state with the fewest regulations on prisoner treatment and facility standards.
Private prisons have also been able to profit off of their captive audience by overcharging on prison services such as interstate phone calls. Not just an overpriced luxury, phone access can be the sole source of communication between inmates and their family, friends, and legal representation, especially if they have been transferred far from the state that originally imprisoned them. The end result being that prisoners can find themselves out of contact with anybody who can advocate on their behalf, hindering the appeals process and giving them little recourse against abuse.
Still, numerous studies detailing the failings of private prisons have not stood in the way of their development, largely because there is such a desperate need for prison space in the United States. America’s outsized prison population is the largest in the world, easily dwarfing that of various totalitarian regimes across the globe. The sheer quantity and percentage of those...read more