How does the privatization of prisons negatively impact the inmates who serve time there?
In recent decades in the United States the number of inmates in jails and prisons has skyrocketed, increasing from just around 200,000 in 1971 to over 2 million in 2008 (Anderson). In the United States today, there are almost 2.3 million people being held in one of over 6,000 criminal justice facilities (Sawyer). In an attempt to accommodate an ever increasing number of inmates, many state and local governments contracted with private organizations in order to house their prisoners (Anderson). Private prisons fail both their inmates and the society they are supposed to be serving in many ways, including lending to this increase in inmates. For profit correctional facilities are businesses first and prisons second. At the end of the day the goal of these enterprises is to turn a profit. In an attempt to maximize said profit they cut a lot of corners when it comes to inmate care including employing fewer guards and offering fewer services. Furthermore, the private prison system actively works to increase the number of inmates they serve by lobbying for harsh sentencing guidelines. Private prisons should be abolished.
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When you are an inmate in a prison your entire life is in the hands of the institution in which you are being housed, and private prisons are failing to maintain the safety and and protection of the inmates they house. In prison, guards control the inmates, regulate the activities they perform and they ensure the rules of the prison are abided by. Likewise, they are charged with stopping any fighting or occurring. In the event of an emergency, such as a fire or a riot, guards are the ones who will step in to restore order (How to Become a Prison Guard: Career and Salary Information). In private prisons, guards receive lower pay and fewer benefits as compared to the guards in public prisons. This leads to a higher rate of turnover in the guards, resulting in fewer, less experienced guards (Anderson). In addition to fewer benefits and lower pay the guards at private prisons also receive 35% fewer training hours than their counterparts at public prisons (Anderson). This lack of experience and knowledge of the facilities in which these guards work as well as a lack of training provided by the facility itself can be detrimental in the event of an emergency, and will make the time spent in the institution more dangerous for inmates in general. In an attempt to cut costs, for-profit prisons employ as few guards as possible to watch over as many prisoners as possible, “On average, private prisons employ 15% fewer guards per inmate than public prisons” (Anderson). In an investigation into a private prison in Colorado following a riot, it was found that there were only 33 officers overseeing 1,100 inmates (Anderson) or one guard for every 33 inmates. The national average is one guard for every 6.7 inmates (More Prisoners, More Guards). In private prisons there are 65% more inmate on inmate assaults and 49% more inmate on staff assaults, than in public prisons (Anderson). This statistic certainly is linked to the lack of experience, training and staff in general that are found in private prisons. In their blatant attempts to cut costs by employing inexperienced and undertrained guards, private prisons actively endanger the lives of their inmates. The wellbeing of the inmates serving in private prisons is less important than profits, and there are significant differences between the safety of inmates at prisons whose primary goal is to be a prison, and at prisons whose primary goal is to make money.
Many believe the purpose of prisons is simply to remove those who have committed crimes and are unworthy of the liberties awarded to law abiding citizens and so forfeit their right to be active members of society. In reality the purpose of a prison is more complex than that. Rather than simply housing these unworthy characters, prisons are tasked with the rehabilitation of inmates. The main goal of a prison is to remove someone who has committed a crime worthy of imprisonment and release them with the necessary skills to contribute and function in society so they no longer need to engage in crime to survive. Private prisons almost completely ignore this responsibility in the interest of maintaining a revenue stream.
Private prisons are fundamentally profit oriented businesses and their prioritization of financial gain detracts from focusing on the needs of inmates. Private prisons receive their payment on a per-diem basis. They are paid per prisoner per bed per day (Aviram, 423). Simply put, more inmates equal more money. When a prison is a business with the goal of making money, rather than an institution with the goal of rehabilitating its inmates it changes the way the prison regards its inmates. Rehabilitation is disincentivized, preparing inmates for a successful life outside of prison does not fill beds.
A study performed by researchers Patrick Bayer and David Pozen found that, “relative to all other management types, for-profit management leads to a significant increase in recidivism…A for-profit prison operator has almost no contractual incentive to provide rehabilitation opportunities or educational or vocational training that might benefit inmates after release, except insofar as these services act to decrease the current cost of confinement.” (Anderson). The fundamental goal of the prison system should be to rehabilitate prisoners. Someone commits a crime, goes to prison, and upon release has received the skills, counseling and training needed to reintegrate into society. Not only do private prisons ignore the idea of rehabilitation, they have a vested interest in the inmates continuing to commit crimes upon their release, thus ending up back in prison which they can continue to profit because of them.
In an article in the Economist, “In Defence of America’s Prison-Industrial Complex”, the author lays out some arguments as to why there should be private prisons and why the arguments against them are moot. Moral concerns in regards to private prisons such as the right to someone’s life and happiness being privatized are mentioned. The author makes clear however that these concerns are not specific to private prisons alone but appear in many fields such as debt collection. The author also mentions that private prisons make up a relatively small percentage of the prison population as a whole and that abolishing them wouldn’t solve the issue of overcrowding and increased incarceration rates in one fell swoop as many believe. This statement, however, is misleading as the biggest impact that private prisons have on incarceration rates and the prison population is not the number of inmates they house, but the legal work they do behind the scenes to ensure there will be a steady flow of inmates to be housed.
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Private prison companies, in an attempt to ensure that their prisons will always be full and thus their profits high, will consistently lobby in favor of harsher criminal sentencing. “During the 1998 election cycle, private prison companies contributed more than $540,000 to 361 candidates in twenty-five states, eighty-seven percent of whom won their elections.” (Anderson). This lobbying to ensure harsher criminal sentencing also has an immense impact on the lives of those who receive jail time after being convicted of non-violent and drug offences. Removing these offenders from society and imprisoning them, which might not have happened under more lenient sentencing guidelines, has a negative effect on recidivism rates (Anderson). Additionally, following a lengthy prison sentence it becomes increasingly difficult to reintegrate into society, family ties are lessened and many are alienated from positive figures in their lives. Prison sentences also make it increasingly difficult to obtain employment following release from prison. Particularly if the facility where time was served was not overtly interested in the rehabilitation, education and vocational training of its inmates, which results in many returning to crime as a means of generating an income or coping with the newfound difficulties of life after prison (Anderson).
Many who may not have committed further crimes return to their criminal roots and end up back in prison, which benefits owners of private prisons. The actions taken by private prison companies in order to secure the ratification of laws in favor of harsher prison sentencing has an actively negative effect on society. The entire point of a prison is to better society by removing those who committed adversely criminal behavior and returning them rehabilitated and ready to contribute. Private prisons push to remove people who have committed relatively tame criminal acts which leads to less tame criminal acts being committed in the future. This contributes, essentially, to the creation of a criminal “class”.
Private prisons are for-profit businesses run with a single goal in mind, making money. They cut costs at every turn and fail the inmates who serve time in their institutions. In their ruthless pursuit of money, they endanger their inmates and ignore the main goal of a prison, the rehabilitation of those who serve time in that institution. This lack of interest in the well being of their inmates and their overt interest in maintaining the high number of prisoners in their jails in order to turn a profit fails both the prisoners themselves and society as a whole. Compared to publically funded prisons private ones fail in every aspect. They fail to keep them safe, they fail to rehabilitate their inmates and they fail to further society as a whole. Private prisons were established to accommodate increasing numbers of prison inmates and in turn have further increased these numbers in the interest of making money. Private prisons are a blemish on an already tainted United States criminal justice system and need to be abolished.
- Anderson, Lucas. “Kicking the National Habit: The Legal and Policy Arguments for Abolishing Private Prison Contracts.” Public Contract Law Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, Fall 2009, pp. 113–139. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=47636483&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Aviram, Hadar. “Are Private Prisons to Blame for Mass Incarceration and Its Evils? Prison Conditions, Neoliberalism, and Public Choice.” Fordham Urban Law Journal, vol. 42, no. 2, Dec. 2014, pp. 411–449. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=102838993&site=eds-live&scope=site
- FREED WESSLER, SETH. “Private Prisons Fail.” Nation, vol. 304, no. 3, Jan. 2017, EBSCOhost, ezproxy.montclair.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=120580204&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Sawyer, Wendy, and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.
- “How to Become a Prison Guard: Career and Salary Information.” CriminalJusticeDegreeSchools.com, CriminalJusticeDegreeSchools.com, 14 Nov. 2019, https://www.criminaljusticedegreeschools.com/criminal-justice-careers/prison-guard/.
- “In Defence of America's Prison-Industrial Complex.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 19 Oct. 2019, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2019/10/19/in-defence-of-americas-prison-industrial-complex.
- “More Prisoners, More Guards.” The Washington Times, The Washington Times, 7 Mar. 2008, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/mar/7/more-prisoners-more-guards/.
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