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  • Writer's pictureLaura Sesana

Privatizing Prisons: At What Price?

WASHINGTON—Prison populations in the U.S. have exploded in the past four decades. At the same time there has been a large increase in the number of private prison companies that profit from keeping more people locked up for longer periods. However, the price of privatizing traditional government roles may be too high.

Growing Prison Population

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), between 1970 and 2009, the U.S. prison population grew by 700%. The War on Drugs, first announced by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, produced a number of laws responsible for the rise in incarceration rates in the U.S., including mandatory minimum sentencing laws, truth in sentencing laws and three strikes laws.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws preclude judges from using their discretion in imposing long sentences, regardless of particular circumstances. Truth in sentencing laws require inmates to remain in prison long after rehabilitation because they significantly restrict parole and probation eligibility. Finally, three strikes laws work in much the same way as mandatory minimums, imposing disproportionately long sentences for minor offenses.

While heavier sentences on drug offenders have been traditionally blamed for the increase in incarceration, between 1998 and 2012 there was also a 145% rise in incarceration for immigration offenses. According to the ACLU, immigrants have been kept in federal prison for up to 20 years before entering civil immigration procedures.

Moreover, prisons have “become de facto mass institutions for the mentally ill.” As state budgets shrink, mental health services are among the hardest hit, and the mentally ill are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and generally provided with little to no treatment.

“Mass incarceration has further weakened depressed communities by depopulating them and stripping even nonviolent former prisoners of opportunities to find employment and meaningfully reenter society,” states an ACLU report on private prisons. “And while public safety requires the incarceration of certain criminals, current rates of incarceration are so anomalous that they provide little, if any, public safety benefit.”

There are currently over 2.4 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. While the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prisoners, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Mass incarceration and the U.S.’s dubious distinction of being the nation that incarcerates more of its people per capita than any other in the world (including Iran, Russia and China) signal the need for radical criminal justice reform, not the outsourcing of prisons in order to continue incarcerating growing numbers of individuals. As more people go to jail and private prison profits grow, everyone except the prison corporations, loses.

The Rise of the Private Prison

Even though private forms of correctional incarceration have existed in the past, private prisons appeared in the U.S. in the early 1980s. Since then, they have grown exponentially; between 1990 and 2009, the number of private prisons in the U.S. has increased by 1600%. Currently, 6% of state and 16% of federal prisoners are housed in private prisons.

Private prisons are extremely lucrative. Profit margins for prison corporations are impressive: in 2010 the two top private prison companies—Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (then called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation)—alone had annual revenue of $3 billion. The majority of their revenue comes from state, local, and the federal government.

“[W]hile supporters of private prisons tout the idea that governments can save money through privatization, the evidence that private prisons save taxpayer money is mixed at best – in fact, private prisons may in some instances cost more than governmental ones,” states the ACLU.

Private prisons readily admit that their profit margins depend on keeping more people in prison for longer, and employ several tactics to ensure that laws with long sentencing requirements continue to proliferate.

CCA, for example, is a major supporter and has a history of close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of state lawmakers and conservative private sector representatives that supports and advocates for harsh sentencing and detention laws like the ones described above.

Many private prison contracts with governments also include occupancy clauses in the form of quotas—some requiring 90 to 100% occupancy—or contain a kind of “low-crime tax,” that requires payments for unoccupied “beds.” According to a 2013 report by In The Public Interest (ITPI) 65% of the state and local prison contracts it analyzed contained one or more of these types of provisions.

The Human Cost of Privatization

Private prison supporters argue that for-profit prisons can relieve cash-strapped state and federal governments form the high costs associated with growing prison populations, presenting privatization as a cost-effective way to deal with shrinking budgets. They also argue that private prisons can help stimulate local economies, provide jobs and reduce prison populations.

“[T]he evidence for such benefits is mixed at best,” states the ACLU report on private prisons. “Not only may privatization fail to save taxpayer money, but private prison companies, as for-profit institutions, are strongly incentivized to cut corners and thereby maximize profits, which may come at the expense of public safety and the well being of prisoners.”

Private prisons lack proper government oversight. This fact coupled with an incentive to cut costs (since generally private prisons receive a set amount of money for housing each individual prisoner independent of actual costs), creates huge opportunities for abuse.

Currently, most private prisons are not places of rehabilitation but places that turn non-violent offenders into toughened criminals, for which a criminal record becomes a hindrance to obtaining employment and reentering law-abiding society.

Several studies have found that private prisons have higher levels of violence and recidivism than public prisons. A national study of public and private prisons found that assaults on guards and prisoners (by guards and prisoners) were all significantly higher in private prisons. Some believe that higher levels of violence are a direct result of chronic understaffing, inadequate training, high turnover, and low pay in the private prison sector.

A 2010 class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and ACLU on behalf of the inmates of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF) against its operator, GEO and state officials, supports the idea that many of these private prisons turn non-violent offenders into lifetime criminals.

The WGYCF is the country’s largest youth correctional facility, housing males between the ages of 13 and 22. The complaint alleges that due to dangerous understaffing, one young man was held hostage for 24 hours while being repeatedly raped and beaten after he had pled with staff for protection. Another young man suffered permanent brain damage after being stabbed and beaten in “an attack in which prison staff were entirely complicit.”

The complaint details young men being punched and beaten while handcuffed and others stripped naked and put in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. It also alleges that children with special health and educational needs did not receive the treatment and serviced they required.

Another way that private prisons cut costs is by providing less basic services, health care and educational opportunities.

In June of 2013, the SPLC and ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), alleging shocking human rights violations against mentally ill and special needs prisoners by the private, for-profit facility. The lawsuit described conditions at EMCF as dangerous, filthy, and “operating in a perpetual state of crisis where prisoners are at grave risk of death and loss of limbs” with little to no medical or psychiatric attention.

A 2007 investigation of GEO-run Coke County Juvenile Justice Center by the Texas Youth Commission and independent auditors found inhumane conditions in the private prison. According to a report in Salon, the auditors “got so much fecal matter on their shoes they had to wipe their feet on the grass outside.” They also uncovered evidence that the juvenile inmates were not allowed to speak to their attorneys, were denied access to medical treatment, and were forced to urinate and defecate in containers due to the lack of toilets in every cell.

The list of violations by private prisons against inmates is staggering and depressing. Most violations can be traced back to cost cutting and lack of oversight from state and federal governments. As a consequence, private prisons have received severe criticism from criminologists, economists, human rights activists, religious community leaders and correctional officers’ unions.

The move towards prison privatization raises many difficult questions: While convicted offenders deserve to be punished for their crimes, do prisoners lose their basic human rights upon incarceration? It also forces a look at the treatment of the very young, those requiring medical care and the mentally ill and how these vulnerable are being locked away, overlooked and subjected to ongoing and systematic torture. This is all going on while the facility perpetrating the torture makes a profit and government (through taxes) continues to pay for it.

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