During the 1980s and early 1990s, the operation of prisons by the private sector became a vital option. This was due to the change in political climate favoring tax reductions and limited government. In addition, the increase in mandatory prison sentences from the start of the "war on drugs" resulted in an extraordinary increase in federal and state prison populations. The prison population rose from 315,974 in 1980 to 883,656 in 1992, a 180% increase (Flanagan Maguire, 1992; Maguire Pastore, 1994; Mauer, 1992). This resulted in a steep increase in the inmate population causing major problems of prison overcrowding. The final push for prison privatization was the laissez-faire approach favored by many Americans which called for the minimization of governmental control. This economic approach was favored by many Americans because of their belief that the private sector can fulfill the needs of the general public more adequately than the public sector.
The way private prisons are run has negative effects on prisoners. "Prison work and education programs of the kind eliminated from some private institutions have been shown to reduce inmates' recidivism. A 1993 report to Congress found that literacy programs made juvenile offenders 20 percent less likely to re-offend; other studies have shown even more dramatic results for adults" (Prisoners/Corrections). The insufficient funds spent on education and security by private prisons makes them more violent places. Advocates of public prisons infer that violent prisons release violent people into society.
Another negative effect on prisoners is symbolism. "Does it weaken that authority, however, as well as the integrity of a system of justice when an inmate looks at his keeper's uniform and, instead of encountering an emblem that reads "Federal Bureau of Prisons" or "State Department of Corrections," he faces one that says "Acme Corrections Company"? (Shichor and Sechrest). Many people consider symbols to be the basis of human behavior and the source of civilization. From a psychological perspective, it seems apparent that what badge an officer wears within a prison facility makes a difference.
Contradicting the evidence that privately run prisons are not beneficial is the following statement by Jeff Becker.
Overcrowding has become a major challenge of U.S. prisons, threatening the security of prisons and the safety of the public. Jeff Becker argues, in the following viewpoint, that allowing private companies to build and maintain prisons can help ease the burden of overcrowding endured by federal and state facilities. He claims that private prisons are run as safely as public prisons. Private prisons can also preserve public safety, he contends, because increased prison space means more inmates will carry out longer sentences (Becker, Jeff).
Becker believes that because overcrowding is such a major challenge for publicly run prisons, having the private sector build and operate prisons will increase the number of prisoners state and federal governments can imprison. He believes that they are run just as safely as public prisons and thinks private prisons maintain the level of safety the public demands since an increased capacity for inmates means they can serve their full sentences. This expanded capacity also provides elasticity for the law if prison sentences are lengthened.
The 2003 Grass Roots Leadership report greatly contradicts Becker's statements through its documentation of a series of wrongful death civil suits, numerous disturbances and escapes, and a long list of other prison management failures. A leader in prison privatization is the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) which has always presented itself as a cheaper and better alternative to imprisoning prisoners than traditional publicly owned prisons. There have been an overwhelming number of management failures in private prisons including the failure to control violence, substandard conditions that have resulted in prisoner protests and uprisings, and escapes, which in the case of two or more facilities resulted in the release of prisoners who were supposed to remain in custody (Gainsborough). The murders that occurred in a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio resulted in the CCA paying 1.6 million dollars to prisoners to settle a lawsuit. Although it would be naive to claim that such instances don't occur in publicly run institutions, it is clear that they don't occur in such unprecedented numbers.
Another reason why prison privatization is not beneficial is because private prisons create artificial situations to boost business. This is done by showcasing some of their facilities to make it appear that private prisons perform above expectations generating them more business. For example, the Silverdale Facility in Tennessee, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, was the subject of several "positive" evaluations (Brakel, 1988; Logan McGriff, 1989; Sellers, 1989), making this facility probably one of the most researched correctional institutions in America. At the same time, little attention was paid to negative reports, such as the 1986 inmate riot in this facility with demands for better food, recreation, and treatment (Diulio, 1990). In addition, the Wackenhut Corporation broke its contract to operate the Monroe Jail in Florida in 1991 when it realized that the state required 11 correctional officers to be on duty per shift rather than the 6 the company wanted to fill (Keating, 1991). They decided that operating the Monroe Jail wouldn't generate enough profits if they were required to position nearly twice as many correctional officers per shift. They were willing to sacrifice safety to maximize their profits.
Contradicting the negative effects of prison privatization is this statement by Wayne Calabrese.
Public-private prison partnerships can lead to a reduction of construction costs by 25-40%, reduction of operational costs, which account for more than 80% of a prison's life-cycle costs, by 10-20%, acceleration of facility construction by as much as 30-50%, assured high quality service, and budget certainty (Calabrese).
Calabrese believes that significant savings can occur through public-private partnerships in construction and operational costs. He also believes that the time required to construct correctional facilities can be dramatically reduced when built under the discretion of the private sector. In addition, he insists that private prisons offer high quality service and can be consistent and predictable when it comes to pricing.
Contradicting Calabrese's statement is the view "that the cost savings claimed by the advocates of privatization have not been clearly proven" (Hatry et al., 1989; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991). If in fact privately run prisons actually cut costs, these savings may be the result of "lowballing" by private companies where corporations attempt to cut labor costs and maximize their profits by using a smaller and less qualified workforce. Although private prisons may in fact save taxpayers money, the savings don't offset the costs of recidivism. In addition, the jobs that private prisons bring to the communities that house them aren't worth the safety risks posed by the low-budget security practices of the private sector.
Correctional officers working in private prisons also experience negative effects. Since its founding, the CCA has attempted to minimize its labor costs to the maximum possible degree. They have achieved this goal by keeping wages low and denying their employees traditional pension plans. This has resulted in high turnover rates and under staffing in many private prisons. "For example, annual turnover rates at several CCA facilities in Tennessee have been more than 60 percent" (Gainsborough).
The negative psychological effects on correctional officers associated with symbolism can be better understood by the following question: If a Medal of Honor was accorded to a citizen for his or her contribution to the country and the ceremony was organized by a private company that could do it more cheaply, would it make a difference if the award presenter wore the pin of a private company rather than being a government representative? (Shichor and Sechrest). An award given by a private company over one given by a government agency would definitely be perceived as less valuable. This might even discourage correctional officers in private prisons from constantly striving to perform better. It is also common knowledge that people relate to private security personnel differently than the way they relate to sworn police officers. The sworn police officers are respected more and are perceived to be of greater authority than private security personnel.
In addition, the CCA has given the Republican Party over $100,000 since 1997 to create a greater demand for its services by changing state policies so that more people will be kept behind bars for longer periods of time. Using tactics such as these, the CCA has been successful in recent years in gaining the support of legislators and the general public. However, it's not hard to obtain the support of legislators when your arguments are backed up by large sums of cash.
Private prisons have negative effects on prisoners because they cut funding on security and educational programs which have been shown to drastically reduce recidivism rates. These cuts make prisons more violent places resulting in the release of violent people into society. By showcasing some of their private prisons, the private sector gives the public an inaccurate picture of how private prisons are generally run. In addition, private prisons are willing to sacrifice security to maximize their profits. There is no proof that prison privatization saves taxpayer dollars. Even if private prisons save taxpayers money, the savings don't offset the safety risks and low-budget security practices associated with private prisons. Private correctional companies also increase corruption within our government by lobbying for policies that keep more prisoners locked up for longer periods of time. They also cut corners by hiring under-qualified staff and providing them with inadequate training. The prison system is something that should remain under the control and discretion of the government because it is prone to unprecedented levels of corruption if turned over to the private sector. It is for these reasons that prison privatization is harmful to society as a whole.
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DiIulio, J. J., Jr. (1990). The duty to govern: A critical perspective on the private management of prisons and jails. In D. C. McDonald (Ed.), Private prisons and the public interest (pp. 155-178). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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Keating, D. (1991, January 30). Monroe County sheriff gets back control of jail from Wackenhut. Miami Herald, p. B4.
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