The land of the free sure manages to lock up a lot of its people: more so, in fact, than any other country in the world. For every 100,000 Americans, 716 will wake up today behind bars. That’s more than five times the rate in Canada and the United Kingdom. That’s more people than Stalin locked up in Gulags. That’s almost the entire country of Jamaica.
It may be hard to see who the benefactor of this penal epidemic is, but one has certainly emerged: private prisons. In a cruel, cyclical pattern, private prisons both benefit from and contribute to higher incarceration rates. By operating with profit motivations, they create an exploitative system that rewards unreasonable imprisonment levels, unjustly depriving individuals of their freedom and draining resources from society.
Privatization began to develop in the 1970s, when the War on Drugs and harsher sentencing policies produced a rapid growth in prison populations. Mandatory minimum sentencing, curtailed probation and parole use, and three-strike laws led to ballooning incarceration rates. Prisons became overcrowded; the cost to maintain them rose. In an effort to cut costs and balance budgets, federal and state governments looked to contract out the service. Freed from heavy bureaucratic regulations, private companies promised a more cost-efficient—but perhaps less moral—model.
In 1983 the Corrections Corporation of America secured the first contract to run an entire facility in the United States. The industry has since boomed. Private prisons today operate in 30 states across the country, housing around seven percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners. Unlike public ones, however, private prisons do not aim to carry out a public good or necessity. They operate with the same intention as all private companies: profits. As federal funding is on a per-detainee basis, more prisoners equates to higher revenue and profits. Today the CCA holds over 90,000 inmates in 65 prisons. It’s worth almost $2 billion.
Profit consideration unfortunately leads the private prison industry to push for policies of more arrests and longer imprisonments, which in turn increase incarceration rates. For example, following a pledge by the Bush Administration and Congress to improve homeland security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, companies stepped up lobbying efforts to increase immigrant detentions. The CCA spent 13 times more on federal lobbying in the years following 9/11 than before. The number of immigrant arrests soared, and today over half are held at private facilities. The CCA and the second-largest private prison company GEO Group have both more than doubled their revenues from immigrant detentions since 2005. Regardless of their necessity, more arrests equals higher profits for private prisons.
Private prisons also push for policies of higher incarceration by aligning with ALEC, an organization of state legislators and corporate executives that supports tougher criminal sentencing. The CCA provided major support for ALEC, which championed legislation resulting in higher incarceration rates. In the 1990s, for example, ALEC succeeded in pushing through Truth in Sentencing, which restricts parole eligibility, and three-strikes laws in 27 states. The CCA recently withdrew its membership under heavy public criticism after ALEC helped draft Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Once again, these policies result in more arrests and longer imprisonments that benefit private prisons but not society as a whole.
To secure a constant influx of inmates, private prisons also exert a troubling amount of influence at the local level. Executives often organize agreements with local communities that provide compensation to the community for each detainee housed at a facility within their borders. Over time, local economics have begun to rely heavily on this revenue. This dependency gives sheriff departments an incentive to increase detentions, as some money will flow back to the town. A Huffington Post investigation found that several counties in Arizona with private prisons have excessive incarceration rates from sheriff departments. Another investigation by The Times-Picayune found that private prisons contributed to higher local arrest rates in Louisiana.
Private prisons also increase profits by reducing operational costs, which comes at the expense of prisoner safety and security. Private facilities usually employ fewer guards and pay lower wages. Though they hold fewer inmates convicted of violent crimes than public prisons, violence within private prisons is often more frequent. Prison guard assaults occur 49 percent more often; violence against fellow inmates is 54 percent more likely.
In 1985, before any private prisons had been constructed, Crimson writer John Ross ’87 forewarned of the dangers of privatization and of giving “the business community a financial stake in increasing the number of prisoners.” He was right. We should halt and reverse the movement to outsource prison responsibility to private firms.
There are certainly moral implications from profiting off the bondage of others, which delve into everything from individual rights to freedoms to the role of the state. But from a purely rational perspective, privatization fosters policies of excessive and unnecessary jailing and devalues prisoner rights. The underlying motivation for incarceration in a private prison is not founded in justice, but rather in profits. Removing these profit considerations from the American penal system is an important first step in creating a freer nation.
James F. Kelleher, Jr. ’17 is a Crimson editorial comper in Wigglesworth Hall.