Examining the practical implications of entrusting private firms to incarcerate inmates

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Sound mental healthy policy is all about the quality of life and concern for human suffering. We all consent that improved mental health care is a sine qua non for a peaceful and productive society. It renews hopes for people who are often viewed as a liability rather than an asset, creates a peaceful business environment and lowers costs for administering Criminal Justice Systems (CJSs). Rehabilitation of prisoners who are considered mentally ill is one of daunting tasks that governments face. This challenge has seen the American Prison System (APS) evolve over time to become one of the largest mental health providers in recent years. There is increasing overlap between Criminal Justice and Mental Health Systems (MHSs), despite traditional differences in their roles and cultures. Traditionally the Mental Health System (MHS) was designed to provide medical services while the Criminal Justice System was meant to protect individuals and society against each other. Today these systems have become complementary and the success of one depends on the other. The influx of persons with mental illnesses into the CJSs has led to the evolution of private prisons that assist the state in rehabilitation of inmates. This has elicited ethical and economic concerns from the public, with some people arguing that it results to criminalization of the mentally ill. This study evaluates the motives behind the mushrooming of private prisons in the American Criminal Justice Systems and their role vis-à-vis the Mental Health System.

Key Words: Criminal Justice System, Mental Health System, Services, Incarceration, Private Prisons.

INTRODUCTION

Traditionally, the theory of punishment has attempted to determine questions such as; how harshly should criminals be punished? What constitutes a "just" penalty for crime? And what is the nature and cause of criminal behavior? Today, a sub-field of punishment theory is focusing on the moral, ethical and practical consequences of prison privatization; the use of privately owned and managed agencies to generate, manage, and assign the services of incarceration (Amico, 2009). Debate on the practical implications of entrusting private firms to incarcerate inmates is hot and unending. There exists no consensus on whether it is legitimate, ethical, moral or efficient. Both proponents and opponents of the idea often outweigh each other. Nevertheless privatization of prisons has consequences and it is an idea that cannot be ignored.

The Criminal Justice and Mental Health Service systems appear to meet different social needs, yet they are interrelated and overlap in two major ways; they work with same and similar individuals and seek to maintain the safety of individuals in a community (Massaro, 2005). Researchers suggest that there are various factors that have led to the influx of mentally ill people into the Criminal Justice System (CJS). These range from insufficient community-based mental health services, downsized state-owned psychiatric institutions and services, laws that tend to be punitive to persons with serious mental illness and lack of appropriate means to re-integrate ex-prisoners into community life among other reasons. Failure by the American government to set up adequate policies to amicably address this issue has led to what is often referred to as "Criminalization of mental illness". People with mental illness are increasingly being regarded as criminals (Knapaux, 2002, p.1)

The need for a coordinated response between the CJS and MHS has led to a progress towards privatization of correctional services in the United States. This is often associated with exceptional growth and increase in the population of US prisons since 1970s, and the emergence of a political climate favorable to free market solutions (McFarland, 2002). Since the creation of the first facility in 1984, the industry has realized substantial growth with increasing revenues. This study examines the motive behind the growth of this industry. Evidence for and against, ethical issues and public values towards the industry will be examined.

Thesis Statement: The Issue

Research shows that the CJS in the US is becoming a significant provider of mental health services as a growing number of men and women who are incarcerated have some form of mental illness, cut backs in mental health services have been made as the Department of Health and Human Services responds to inadequate funding, and the shift from mental health services being provided by the state to being provided by the Criminal Justice System perhaps creates a profit motive for incarceration as we move from publicly-funded to private-sector prisons. This study will examine the two views expressed by both the proponents and opponents of this noble debate, and take a firm stand at the end of it. Credible works will be consulted, reviewed and cited to support this argument.

Privatization of Prisons: What It Is?

The privatization of prisons usually denotes both the takeover of existing public facilities or amenities by private agents, and to the construction, management and operation of new and extra prisons by profit-making prison firms (Cheung, 2000). Some of these prisons may be built to confine out-of-state-intimates. State or federal governments then pay per diem or monthly rates for each prisoner, depending on existing laws. The private prisons act as third parties. Firms that operate such facilities today include the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, and Community Education Centers (CEC).

THE GENESIS

Privatization of prisons has a long history. Convict Lease Systems-perhaps the first privatized correctional facilities in America, were established in 1880s in the southern states during the period of reconstruction. It involved private firms leasing out prisoners to work for other firms, for instance in the construction of railroads. The system took control of housing and monitoring the behavior of prisoners freeing states from budgeting for state-run prisoners; in some cases the state received a portion of money made by prisoners (Miller, 2010, Reed, 1907,). However, the environment within which this system existed remained brutal to prisoners; exploitation, overcrowding, whippings, poor diets and undernourishment were the order. One would be tempted to argue that slavery nourished this business.

Doors Wide Opened

These facilities remained illegal until congress passed the Public Law 96-157, in 1979, which implemented the Private Sector-Prison Industry Enhancement Pro-gram (PIE-Program). This program often allowed states to sell goods made by prisoners along state line for a profit. The program also required that the prisons be paid equivalent wages, teach inmates work skills and compensate victims. To be precise, this was meant to increase revenues for public prisons and use these public facilities as vocational treatment centers. This law didn't legalize the operation of private prisons but it opened avenues for their existence and operations (Miller, 2010, Herraiz, 2004,). Nevertheless this program is regarded as the legislation that allowed private firms to provide correctional services, traditionally limited to public facilities.

Austin &Coventry (2001) note that one of the most conspicuous challenges facing the US CJS is the consistent overcrowding of US prisons. The population of adult inmates is always increasing and housing such a huge population humanely has become an economic and social burden to prison administrators and the federal and state governments that must finance such institutions. This has often become difficult because most of the inmates are considered mentally ill. The 1980s saw an emotional US society perceive failure of the penal system to successfully rehabilitate and integrate offenders, and reluctance by state and federal governments to increase funding for correctional institutions (Austin & Coventry, 2001). The increasing demands for jail space lead to a crisis that required immediate solutions; one of which was privatization of prisons and jails, by contracting their operations in whole or in part. This was supported by proponents of prisons privatization who argued that this strategy could result to cost reductions and efficiency in rehabilitation of inmates. Since the 1980s the number of inmates confined in private prisons has risen tremendously, and the US has not been an exception.

Private infiltration in prison services is no new phenomenon in the US. Both Federal and State governments have had a culture of awarding contracts on certain prison services to private firms; transportation of inmates, food preparation, trainings and medical services (McFarland, 2002, Cheung, 2000). In 1984, the US immigration and naturalization Service was the first federal organization to contract private correctional services to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee. This wave of contracts was followed by unprecedented era of prison privatization. The 1980s saw an increasing prison population, resulting from the "War on Drugs" and continued use of incarceration.

In 1987, about 3, 122 out of the 3.5 million convicts were confined in private correctional facilities in the US. In the year 2001, 123, 000 of the 6.5 million inmates were confined in private facilities. This rapid upsurge in bed capacity of private prisons was associated with an overall rapid increase in the total population of inmates in the US as a whole (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002). This high rate growth in the number of intimates and rising costs became problematic to federal, local and state governments. In response to this dilemma, and in a capitalist society, private business interests saw an opportunity for growth. As a result private sector involvement in prison affairs graduated from the initial contracting to complete administration and operations of the prison sector. Privatization of correctional services in the US is akin to the private capitalist business and industrial ventures driven by profit motives. There is no doubt that it has grown tremendously and attracted attention from human rights gurus, entrepreneurs and academicians.

THE DEBATE: WHY PRIVATE CORRECTIONAL SERVICES?

Last year, state lawmakers passed a controversial bill that would have privatized almost all of Arizona's correctional services system for $100 million upwards-an extraordinary initiative by any state government. The idea behind this was cost and efficiency in correctional services. Proponents of this idea argued that this initiative would reduce the billion-dollar budget gap in Phoenix (Khimm, 2010). Though the bill wasn't signed, Arizona still confines a substantial number of inmates in private prisons annually. The inmate population has tripled since 1987, and this has seen a parallel surge in private prison construction. Inmates in private facilities now account for 9 percent of all inmates, a rise from 6 percent in 2000. Studies have not yet agreed on a single causal factor behind the upsurge in privatization of correctional services.

Quality and Efficiency of Correctional Services

Much debate on privatization of prisons revolves around cost and efficiency of operation. The major purpose of privatizing any government facility is either to improve the quality and efficiency of service without increasing the costs or decrease the cost of operation but maintain the quality of service delivery. Privatization of prisons in the US has expanded on the strength of increased efficiency (McFarland, 2002). Proponents of this idea note that private prisons cost the taxpayers less and also indirectly petition government facilities to function more efficiently or risk loosing funding for their operations.

When considering the quality of service, certain issues are considered; the security of correctional facilities (escapes and deaths), efforts to rehabilitate; drug rehabilitation and education, and quality of life; medical treatment, food, recreation (Seiter, 2008, McFarland, 2002,). A study on the quality and efficiency of prisons in New Mexico, rated private prisons higher than public correctional facilities. The study done by Montaque & Erick (2001) showed that private prisons had a higher quality in all service categories except "care" (figure 1). The study involved both prisoners and correctional officers as respondents. Additionally, they didn't capture any doubts regarding the quality of private prisons.

Seiter (2008) argues that public and private partners in correctional services share a lot in common. They have a common goal; to ensure safety of communities, staff and inmates, professional staff training and the provision of quality corrections cost-efficiently. He observes that private prisons are committed to delivering quality services to citizens and meet the expectations of all taxpayers, the federal and state government officials responsible for monitoring and evaluating the work of these private facilities (p.3). Seiter summarizes the functions and mission of private correctional facilities as follows;

Private prisons bring beds on line quicker, compared to government agencies which take five to six years to build and equip a correctional facility, while private firms claim they can accomplish this in three or two years (Austin and Coventry, 2000). This is often as a result of a long government bureaucratic process that involves a long process of identifying the need for a correctional facility, persuading the legislature to fund it, tendering and construction.

Access to capital may be a long process in government circles. This may include selling of government bonds to finance a project. The private sector may always provide funding that is calculated into the expected per diem costs to the public customers and this may save the private firm from extending their credit lines.

The need for flexibility-the state is always seeking non-prison alternatives to deal with law offenders; this is true and not debatable. As inmate population rises every year, there is a constant need for more prison beds and other correctional facilities. Contracting and sharing the burden provides a flexible mechanism to change their minds and create community correctional services.

Efficiency and Costs of Incarceration

Despite the debate in research, proponents of privatization of correctional services argue that several studies show that privatization of prisons can lead to cost savings in administering correctional services. Most of these studies involve the comparison of similar variables between prisons; mainly, one private and one public. They stick to the idea that cost-savings benefit exist in privately run prisons, with some reporting a 20-30% savings (GEO group). Segal and Moore (2003) observe that the growth of private prisons indirectly lowers the cost of administering prisons by promoting a healthy competition between private and public prisons.

The competitive mode of the capitalist system of doing business has been cited as a benefit to private prisons. Privatization urges managers from both the private and public prisons to devise and enact cost-effective measures while at the same time maintaining quality of corrective services-in order to remain competitive and relevant (Miller, 2010, Sepal & Moore, 2002,Thomas 1997).

For instance, a 1997 and 2000 study by the state of Arizona on costs associated with private and public prisons found evidence of cost savings; the 1997 study established that the average daily cost per inmate in government prison was $43.08, while that of private prisons was $35.90. The 2000 study also established that the average cost was $45.85 in government prisons (1999), while the cost was lower at 40.88 in private facilities in the same year (1999). Corrections Corporation of America has also claimed that states that contracted it for prison facilities between 1994 and 1998 saved approximately $248 million in costs (McFarland, 2002, Thomas, 1997). Nevertheless research on this field of cost efficiency and quality of services provided by private correctional facilities vis-à-vis the public ones in controversial. Some argue that it is biased and it favors the private facilities with a profit motive.

The next section of this study examines the profit motive and ethical issues surrounding private prisons that result to the criminalization of the mentally ill. The section holds the argument that Criminal Justice System in the US has grown to become one of the largest providers of mental health. This has been largely complemented by the rapid growth of private prisons which attach a profit motive to their services, leading to criminalization of the mentally ill and lack of ethical conduct and values.

ARE PRIVATE PRISONS WORTH THE COST?

In spite of the enthusiasm, and rapid growth in privatization of prisons, opponents of the idea argue that there are no attached benefits in cost savings and quality of service in prison privatization. They argue that these studies ignore a variety of issues and only focus on the operational costs (per diem rates) (Sigler, 2010, Perrone & Pratt, 2003, McFarland, 2002). The argument is that most studies do not significantly show cost differences or find that private prisons end up costing more than private facilities.

Opponents of this idea question these findings due to their faulty data collection procedures and statistical methodologies. Others question the validity of these surveys arguing that they are funded or conducted by privately owned firms to sway public opinion and perception on these private correctional services. Critics argue that all findings that reveal cost-saving benefits for private prisons are often conducted by private prisons themselves or lobbyists with business interests in the privately owned and run prisons (Perrone & Pratt, 2002)

Others conclude that it is difficult and almost impossible to conduct comparisons between public and private correctional facilities because of differences in organizational structure, styles, prison sizes, types of inmates, and correctional programs offered, making comparisons of similar variables in such a structure becomes almost non-existent.

Some researchers observe that private prison contractors often siphon off the least costly inmates-healthier and less violent than the whole incarcerated population. Simple comparisons based on per diem rates and that tend to favor private correctional facilities may not necessarily reflect the whole cost of incarceration. Others observe that any cost savings incurred by private prisons come at the cost of inmates' well being-they are housed in cramped and unsafe houses, save money by skimping on staffing and comprehensive personnel training and offering substandard vocational and educational programming and training (Sigler, 2010). The profit motive is perceived as creating adverse incentives to prolong inmate sentences and encourage Criminal Justice policies and systems that bore longer sentences regardless of whether they are, justified, legitimate or in the public interest.

Accounting for Privately-Run Prisons

In 1996 the US General Accounting Office (GAO), questioned the findings and assumptions held by proponents of privatization. The office found that there was no tangible evidence that convincingly revealed cost-efficiency gains from privatization of prisons. It also noted flaws in the studies that favored privatization, these ranged from the failure to compare similar firms, accounting for both cost and quality or failure to account for hidden costs (GAO Reports, 96-158).

Cost of negotiating contracts in an example of a hidden cost that is often overlooked and not captured. Procedures for data collection, proposal gathering, analysis and determination of who wins the contract are often ignored and not accounted for. This is often an additional cost to federal or state governments which has to decide to award the contracts or not (McFarland, 2002). The costs of health care are often too high. Private firms contracted to offer correctional facilities will often set rates that they may not exceed incase of severe diseases or mental problems. The state always has to bear the additional costs incurred. This hidden cost is often ignored by most studies that favor private correctional facilities.

Another factor that influences researchers and policy makers to perceive efficiency in private prisons is their capacity to relive municipalities of tax burdens. Traditionally, whenever a new prison facility was established, the mentality of "it is not in my backyard" arose among municipalities. The mentality began to change when it was realized that there were economic benefits in the established of prison facility at the vicinity of an impoverished town. Municipalities began to extend funds to private firms for construction of new correctional facilities within their jurisdictions. It is however overlooked that there is no evidence to show that private prisons act as drivers of economic growth (Hooks & Gregory, 2002).

Public Values and privatization of prisons

The idea of privatizing prisons has witnessed serious dilemmas and elicited criticism from human rights crusaders, economists, religious leaders, criminologists and in some cases correctional officers' unions. These professionals accuse the sector of corruption, harmful incentives and practices that resemble the historical and racist old confederate U.S. South; Convict Leasing. Public acceptance and accountability is considered an important aspect of any correctional facility. Any initiative that is not socially acceptable is considered unethical. This has presented some dilemmas pertaining public values such as safety, justice, rehabilitation and legitimacy (McFarland, 2002).

Safety in private prisons

Critics of privatization of prisons argue that profit is the driving motive for their establishment. They are not charitable entities that can operate at a loss. The urge is to reduce operation costs. They argue that private prisons tend to have fewer and less experienced guards who are poorly motivated resulting to incidences of violence behind the bars. Private correctional facilities often experience conflicting goals, in that these facilities are private and profit oriented yet they must strive to maintain efficiency and legitimacy of an institutional environment (with morals value system that has to be adhered to) (Ogle, 1999).

Some critics argue that private prisons are akin to private security companies that cut costs by employing less qualified staff which affects negatively their efficiency. It therefore seems that the profit motive within private correctional facilities overshadows the call and values that these facilities should adhere to. Nevertheless, some people argue that a safer prison is a profitable prison and private prisons will try their best to make sure that they remain in business (Lissner et al, 1998). Though there may be some truth in this, there is no guarantee, and correctional initiatives should not be a try and error game.

Justice, rehabilitation and the incarceration of the mentally ill

Critics of privatization argue that private prisons can extend the duration an intimate is convicted. This is often associated with the profit motive and the urge to remain in business. This is often a threat to justice. Private prisons may engage in lobbying; directly or indirectly to influence the laws that convict inmates. Allegations of influencing the formulation of laws have been leveled against the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which has been involved actively in advocating for truth in sentencing allover the US. This organization is heavily funded by the American Corrections Industry. Private prisoners are paid per day per inmate, this has elicited concerns that the prisons can exert undue influence on hearings to increase the days of inmates and delay justice ((DiIulio, 1990).

The purpose of correctional services is to grant justice, rehabilitate and re-integrate inmates back into the society. Critics of privatization point out that the profit motive of these facilities shades away the rehabilitative character of correctional facilities. They also argue that private prisons may lack the capacity to do so efficiently, although it all depends with the nature of contracting. Some contracts are done with performance and evaluation strategies laid down. Nevertheless the profit motive and moral justification granted to private prisons is an issue. Failure of these private facilities to effectively rehabilitate inmates denies them justice.

Legitimacy of private prisons

Critics of privatization note that it is illegitimate for government to delegate authority and allow private firms to take control of an essential part of the justice system (Sigler, 2010, McFarland, 2002). This is because prisons have control and influence the nature and probably the duration of an inmates stay in prison. This argument is emphasized by Dilulio's argument which focuses on the moral concern as to whether we can entrust private firms in delivering justice to inmates. He writes;

In my judgment, to continue to be legitimate and morally significant, the authority to govern those behind bars, to deprive citizens of their liberty, to coerce (and even kill them) must remain in the hands of government authorities. Regardless of which penological theory is in vogue, the message, "Those who abuse liberty shall live without it is the philosophical brick and mortar of every correctional facility" (p. 173).

CONCLUSION

The US Criminal Justice System has grown to become one of the largest mental health care providers. This has been complemented by the rapid growth of private correctional facilities. Federal and state governments seem to have delegated some authority to private prisons to assist in rehabilitation. The convincing argument is that privatizing prisons can lead to cost-savings and increased efficiency. This sector has in turn attracted private firms that enter into contracts with state or federal governments to run correctional facilities, often at a profit. Based on the capitalist economic system, this seems to be a promising business.

The profit motive in any business seems to have plunged the US private correctional firms in a dilemma of ensuring they remain profitable but at the same time maintaining the quality and efficiency of service provision. There is still no consensus as to whether privatizing prisons improves efficiency of service, and whether they are morally accepted and ethical to usurp the role traditionally controlled by the public through their elected state governments. Nevertheless the profit motive though not exclusive remains an issue and ethical concern in correctional services. The above data supports the thesis that profit motives contribute a lot to the rapid growth of private prisons and the increased involvement of the Criminal Justice System in mental health delivery

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