This paper will reflect the arguments for and against using private prison to house prison inmates. The use of private prisons is not a new concept in the United States. Many state prisons evolved from private institutions. Housing convicted felons did not become an issue until the colonization of the United States. Incarceration was usually only done to ensure that one appeared for trial or when one owed money as a way to ensure payment was received. Prisons have been built since the 1600's as a means to keep the criminal secured from society protecting society from being victimized (Austin, J., & Coventry, G., 2001, p. 9). It may have never been imagined, the astronomical costs associated with locking offenders up. The average daily cost for an offender in a state prison is said to be $20,000 a year for a state prison while the cost for a CCA Corrections Corporation of America bed will cost 17,000 per year (Austin, J., & Irwin, J., 2000). This can be a significant savings motivating a state to opt for the cheaper alternative. Cheaper is not always better and this is what will be contrasted and compared here.
There are many reasons states choose to utilize private prisons. Bed space and cost savings are some of the most prevalent reasons (Austin, J., & Coventry, G., 2001). Cost of building private prisons is far cheaper for private prisons than for states to build their own state owned facilities. Private prisons are not as restricted to building requirements state owned prisons would be subjected to with respect to how contracts are awarded, and meeting the several requirements states are legislatively mandated to follow. Private prisons can or usually have their own contractors who either work for them or may even be owned by them allowing for much more control over costs. Private prisons do not have to convince local communities of the need to build a facility or seek their permission, only satisfy local building ordinances. They simply purchase the land and build a prison. Private prison firms can house offenders at a much cheaper rate because their operations are usually cheaper. Private prisons frequently hire staff at a much lower wage than those in state facilities. Training for their staff is limited and not set to the high standard that many states hold for their law enforcement personnel. Unions are not commonly found in operation in private prisons, thus avoiding the pitfalls of paying higher wages and meeting contract agreements that unions secure for their employees. Wages can then be kept at lower levels than that of state facilities, reducing operational costs significantly. Services that private prisons provide are at the cheaper end of the spectrum as well. Many private prisons are not mandated to have certain programs in their prisons and do not need to spend the money hiring people to carry on those services. Though it has been pointed out that private prisons have a higher success rate of offenders who complete educational programs (Archambeault, W., & Deis Jr., D. R. (1997). These success rates may also be more achievable as the frequency of inmates leaving to and from other facilities may be lower in private prisons versus state run facilities allowing inmates to complete programs. Many services are kept to the bare minimum, medical, food service. Private prison corporations also have smaller companies that specifically manage these facets of running a prison, making supplying those services cost effective.
Private prisons have some things that make them less ideal in housing offenders. Private prisons can tend to have higher rates of violence. Some statistics state that the rate of assaults is 35.1 per 1000 prisoners vs. 25.4 assaults on inmates per 1000 during the year 1997 (Austin, J., & Coventry, G., 2001, 46). Higher levels of violence may lend to higher levels of liability for those states who house their inmates in private facilities. Higher violence can also be attributed to fewer and poorly trained staff. Lower staffing levels mean that the presence as a deterrence would not be as prominent for offenders. Opportunities may be more readily available due to the lower staffing levels where portions of these private prisons may be less supervised. With fewer staff to respond, or response times being extended due to staff responding from opposite ends of the facility, give offenders more opportunity to strike. The violence can somewhat be explained as well in that many private prisons generally house low to medium risk inmates, who tend to behave on account they want to retain their custody level.
Contraband introduction and management are some of the other considerations to be taken into account. Private prisons with cheaper labor may make staff ripe for manipulation by offenders turning staff and getting contraband introduced. State facilities share the same issues, with staff manipulation though instances of this occurring may be lowered by having higher paid work force in place with better training.
State prisons tend to be more expensive to build. State prisons are subject to a different set of standards when it comes to determining a site for a new prison. Local communities though eager for the jobs, have no desire for a prison to being built in their back yard. Much of the construction is done with companies that have received the job by the lowest bid and the process for securing these contracts is lengthy and cumbersome (Austin, J., & Coventry, G., 2001). Timelines are frequently not met and poor construction due to poor supervision of these projects means construction is usually completed at higher than projected cost. These cost overruns are translated in the cost per bed, and makes housing inmates at a much higher cost than private prisons can do. Bed space tends to be limited in state prisons due to the limited availability; many prisons that have been designed for lower occupancy have been double bunked to support the growing need to house offenders. Many state prisons are forced to house inmates in private prisons as the only means of reducing prison populations that are often mandated by the courts and or legislation. Operational costs for state run prison systems are far higher than that of private prisons. Many state run facilities have unions supporting the staff. Wages, medical coverage and other benefits are negotiated in the favor of the correctional employee.
Services provided by state run prisons are limited and usually at a higher cost than at private prisons due to having to hire outside contractors to perform many of those services like drug and alcohol counseling. Programs are more streamlined to meet the needs of offenders as per the mandates of the court. Completion of these programs is at a lower level as compared to private prisons, but as aforementioned, this may be due to the high rate of transfer of offenders within the state systems.
By the laws of our states offenders who are convicted and incarcerated are considered wards of the state and many believe that as such, the state is responsible for housing and caring for these offenders. Moral arguments have been made as to whether it is the permissible to contract out responsibilities that should be the burden of the state. Private prisons have been questioned on their authority to impose requirements that would affect an offender's sentence, by extending that sentence for example with the loss of good time for failure to participate. A number of other issues come into question as well, specifically with due process and liability issues and who becomes responsible for these when housed by a cooperation motivated by money rather than the oversight of the government and courts (Austin, J., & Coventry, G., 2001).
Private prisons are not answerable to state legislatures because they are not owned by the state with respect operations. Much of how these prisons operates is determined by a board of directors whose primary motivation is to make money for the company. Usually the only means of oversight is by state facilities providing staff to act as a conduit between the state from where the offenders come from and the private facility where they are housed. This arrangement is usually part of the contract that is established between the two parties.
Private prisons have their advantages the biggest of which is that they do not cost as much to run as public prisons. Private prisons have the advantage of building cheaper facilities, staffing them with cheaper labor. Many private prison offer programming and many of the needs that state prisons provide. These are obviously the things that make private prison competitive and a viable option. While there are many reasons not to utilize private prisons, it really comes down to risk management on the part of the state. If the risks are acceptable to the state, then private prisons may provide the relief they seek. Private prisons are viable, and with the proper contractual protocols in place and monitoring by state governments who contract with private prisons, they can be utilized effectively.