The Problem of Private Prisons


I somehow missed this a couple weeks ago, but the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country (and thus, almost certainly, the world), is offering to buy state-run prisons and jails — as long as the states will promise to keep them 90% full.

As state governments wrestle with massive budget shortfalls, a Wall Street giant is offering a solution: cash in exchange for state property. Prisons, to be exact.

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for “challenging corrections budgets.” In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Huffington Post.

I’m almost at a loss for words here. My typical go-to term would be “appalling,” but that seems too week. Asinine? How about dangerous and corrosive to society? This country already has a huge, huge problem — almost infinitely bigger than most Americans realize — with mass incarceration. We lock up a higher percentage of our citizens than any other nation in the world, and by a sizable margin. And most of those who are locked up have harmed no one but themselves (and often not even themselves).

As Michelle Alexander documents in exhaustive detail in her book The New Jim Crow, the result is hundreds of thousands of people every year being shut out of the mainstream of society for minor offenses like drug possession. Once they have that conviction on their record, they become instantly ineligible for everything from public housing assistance to pell grants. Their odds of finding a job shrink tremendously. It’s a perfect recipe for creating a permanent underclass.

And now along comes a company that wants to profit from guaranteeing even more of this. This is a company that simply should not be allowed to exist, period. It is the function of government to run the criminal justice system, not corporations.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m an Australian, and was brought up to look to America as a shining beacon.

    Gotta tell ya, you’re looking a lot more like the sordid late days of the Roman Empire than the early halcyon of the Republic from where I sit. How long until you cut out the middle man and bring back gladiatorial punishments of minor criminals on pay per view?

  2. dali70 says

    “This is a company that simply should not be allowed to exist, period. It is the function of government to run the criminal justice system, not corporations.”

    Too bad it’s the corporations that buy the government that runs the criminal justice system.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    It is the function of government to run the criminal justice system, not corporations.

    Not that the likes of Sheriff Joe are setting a particularly good example…

  4. timberwoof says

    Headdesk. The Rethuglicans are the party of economists who talk about economic incentive all the time. Poverty is an economic incentive to be come rich, so people will naturally rry to be come rich bla bla bla. The fundamental problem with that kind of thinking is that making money is the single goal for every activity; an enterprise’s ability to make money is its only measure of goodness.

    So, okay, to run a bakery or a mill is a good thing and you should be able to make money at it. But some things are not best served by the profit motive … and other things are worst served by it. The government should have an incentive to reduce the number of people in prison! Instead, what these immoral thugs are doing is giving the government a contractual obligation to put people in prison.

    It’s bad enough when the highway patrol has quotas to fill.

  5. Chiroptera says

    On the other hand, if it’s correct that our prisons are over crowded, then bringing them down to only 90% full would be an improvement!

    But seriously, I find it interesting that the industry thinks that the threat of reducing prison populations is enough of a possibility that they have to even mention this demand.

    But maybe the executives are civic minded people who put the public welfare above personal profit and threw this out there precisely to get people to say WTF?

    Ha ha. I quit being serious again.

  6. says

    Are there are statutes or cases that might make such a contract unenforceable? Private prisons are a huge moral hazard and I’m wondering if the are any legal checks on it.

  7. says

    On the other hand, if it’s correct that our prisons are over crowded, then bringing them down to only 90% full would be an improvement!

    I was planning on posting the comment, “Only 90% full? Progress!” but you beat me to it.

    The humor doesn’t last long, though. Private prisons have a financial incentive to make petty criminals into hardened criminals, and with this demand to keep the prisons 90%+ full, I imagine there’s also going to be corruption to push for even higher conviction rates, no matter how many innocent people they have to throw in.

  8. Abby Normal says

    And now along comes a company that wants to profit from guaranteeing even more of this.

    On a tangent from Chiroptera, 90% capacity would be a reduction. Local jails operate at an average of 96% capacity, state prisons are about 115% capacity, and federal prisons are around 135% capacity. Not that this bid isn’t appalling. Just saying, in our current justice system it’s not going to be a tough number to hit.

  9. walton says

    The private detention industry is a toxic influence. Unfortunately, this has spread beyond America’s borders; in Europe, companies like G4S and Serco have taken over a number of prisons and detention facilities, and they are, among other things, responsible for the horrors of the growing immigration detention industry, in which men, women and children, some of them refugees fleeing horrific persecution, are locked up in worse conditions than prisoners, for nothing other than being of the wrong nationality. In Britain, where I come from, there have been appalling racist abuses of detainees at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, for instance. (And since immigration detention in most countries is a form of administrative detention rather than a criminal sanction, detained immigrants are often denied even the basic the procedural rights that criminal defendants receive.)

    The US criminal justice system would take a great deal of work to fix, but there are several things that could be done. I agree with Ed that it’s important to end privatized prisons: creating a multi-billion-dollar industry with a vested interest in locking up more people has been, predictably, an unmitigated disaster. Aside from that: decriminalize drugs, stop locking people up for victimless crimes, scrap mandatory minimum sentences, end the practice of directly electing judges and prosecutors, strengthen defendants’ procedural rights, and increase funding to the public defender system considerably. Of course, none of this has a chance in hell of happening, politically.

    (The immigration detention system, on the other hand, should simply be abolished completely, and the whole system of immigration enforcement should be dismantled: there’s no good reason at all to discriminate against a person because of the location of her birth or the colour of her passport. Immigration controls are a relatively recent invention – in the US, they date back only to the explicitly-racist Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Immigration Act of 1924 – and have always been based in racism; originally, they were introduced in response to far-right and nativist sentiments. And they come at a horrific human cost. But I digress.)

  10. unbound says

    I would love to have a 20 year contract. Usually stuck with either 1 yr or 3 yr base contracts with a few years worth of options that the federal government can terminate at will.

    Yep. Not a single aspect of this situation that doesn’t smell thoroughly rotten. They are even so brazen to require that facilities aren’t too old (so they won’t have to spend anything other than the bare minimum maintenance). Somehow they will magically save $3 million / year managing an Ohio facility they recently picked up…which sounds suspiciously like someone in the Ohio state government is probably spinning numbers in support of friends at CCA.

  11. timothyyoung says

    Serious question if anyone knows the answer. Do American corrections officials show their faces at any sort of international conferences ?

  12. D. C. Sessions says

    It is the function of government to run the criminal justice system, not corporations.

    Well, first off that’s a highly debatable “ought” in conflict with the demonstrable “is.”

    Beyond that, of course, is the fact that from a libertarian perspective damn near everything should be run by people (including corporations, which are people my friends) instead of government. Some might grant that government delegate the operation of criminal justice, as we do today, but the actual operation would ideally be entirely private.

  13. says

    In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full…

    Gee, I’d be happy to buy any business where the seller paid me a management fee for 20 years and was required to purchase 90% of my productive capacity. It’s hard to lose with a deal like that.

    Never mind the injustice of it all. This is an insult to our intelligence.

  14. says

    My typical go-to term would be “appalling,” but that seems too week. Asinine?

    How about “immoral”?

    If the premise of the prisons is that they have something to do with state-administered justice, they cannot be a profit center.

  15. says

    How long until you cut out the middle man and bring back gladiatorial punishments of minor criminals on pay per view?

    You know those cheesy sci-fi dystopias where they make some form of bloodsport that involves convicts trying to win their freedom?

    I used to think that they were implausible plot devices to set up gory gladiatorial action sequences and encourage mass consumption of popcorn. Now I’m starting to wonder if California is going to end up hosting “The Running Man” in a few years.

  16. says

    How long until you cut out the middle man and bring back gladiatorial punishments of minor criminals on pay per view?

    They’re waiting for the Brawndo sponsorship contract to get signed.

  17. Azkyroth says

    Private prisons are a huge moral hazard and I’m wondering if the are any legal checks on it.

    Are you serious? The country completely forgot that “morality” ever had to do with anything except sex decades ago.

  18. pacal says

    Why the hell should the government garantee 90% capacity to private company? THey either run it profitibly or they sink

    But then corporate welfare is alright for some corperations.

  19. says

    So the prison corporation can’t really run a prison better unless they get a guarantee that the state will go out of its way to keep the prisoners coming? This demand can be taken as an admission that privately-owned, for-profit prisons simply don’t work as advertized. It’s time to scrap this experiment altogether.

    As for what to call this atrocity, how about “re-enslavement?”

  20. says

    “An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmatepopulation to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”

    I’m betting that they’ll be happy to grant waivers for those facilities already in excess of 90% to maintain their current population or 90% of their design population, whichever number is more profitable.

    I’m going to hazard a guess that this number, (615) 263-3001, has been changed already.

  21. Michael Heath says

    Chiroptera:

    And now along comes a company that wants to profit from guaranteeing even more of this.

    Abby Normal:

    On a tangent from Chiroptera, 90% capacity would be a reduction. Local jails operate at an average of 96% capacity, state prisons are about 115% capacity, and federal prisons are around 135% capacity. Not that this bid isn’t appalling. Just saying, in our current justice system it’s not going to be a tough number to hit.

    Private corporations must grow or they die. So we can confidently assume that whatever the current capacity rate happens to be, a private prison industry would be focused on growing profits partly by increasing overall capacity. So we can safely assume a private prison industry would be lobbying heavily for legislation that increases the number of people incarcerated and their time in prison.

  22. Doug Little says

    Sorry, this is my WTF moment for the day, I spoke too soon in the other thread.

    So I guess the overturning of all drug possession convictions and a massive savings in the criminal detention budget can wait at least another 20 years. I guess we can look forward to even more draconian drug enforcement laws and massive prison budgets for the future. Can’t Pat Robinson call on his sky daddy to fix the problem.

  23. kermit. says

    Well, this fits right in with the increasing privatization of the US military, doesn’t it? If there’s anything better for society than a little known but significant corporation that makes more money if we have more prisoners, then it’s got to be declaring war (or not declaring war) based on the bottom line.

    If the charter schools are doing their job*, then the next generation will have been educated to understand that this is all well and good.

    *Yes, I know that not all charter schools are evil. Give it time.

  24. John Hinkle says

    Privatized prisons also have the added benefit that when states face financial hardship, what politician is going to campaign on reducing the prison population via spending cuts? Ha ha. The mentally ill, the destitute elderly, health care for those in poverty, etc., all the under-represented will get axed before any politician admits to being “soft on crime.”

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