Considering the Policy Consequences of Private Prisons

In a letter sent to 48 states, Corrections Corporation of America asks states to consider the “benefits of partnership corrections.” In essence, the company offers to buy up state prisons:

But there’s a catch…the states must guarantee that are there are enough prisoners to ensure that the venture is profitable to the company. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has reached out to 48 states as part of a $250 million plan to own existing prisons and manage their operations. But in return CCA wants a 20-year contract and assurances that the state will keep the prisons at least 90% full.

Via Barry Ritholtz, “I guess the marijuana laws cannot be overturned then or it would violate this 20 year contract.” More at HuffPo.

Adam Gopnik in his must read New Yorker article, The Caging of America:

The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.

There is some small hope that we are beginning to recognize the dangers of going down that path. Salon reports that a nationwide campaign to stem investments in private corrections companies is gathering steam. And the largest ever proposed expansion of private prisons was voted down this month in the Florida Senate.

         

21 Comments

  1. “assurances that the state will keep the prisons at least 90% full.”

    government contracts assuring a certain prison population????? sounds like another attack on personal liberty…

    “we’re going to toss you in jail so we can match a quote”… but what if juries don’t go along?!!?!? hmm…threaten people with life for petty crimes…that will get them to deal, guilty or not.

  2. This country is getting scarier and scarier. Ain’t privatization great!!!

    (Hmmm.. what else can we feed those corporate prisons with… ya know, those jaywalkers have really been getting a pass all this time. Maybe we need to crack down!)

  3. This is pretty bad. And not unique to privately run prisons. California’s public prison guards’ union achieved a similar effect by sponsoring our three-strikes law. Even individual politicians have a stronger financial incentive to appear tough on crime than to lower the incarceration rate, and the war on drugs is just one example of where that leads.

  4. First of all, lets not jump to liberal conclusions that all privatization is bad or the conservative conclusion that state and federal goverment run “anything” is bad.

    1. No matter who or what runs the prisons, the prison population is going to continue to grow. This growth is between 1%-2.5% a year, with a few years thrown in where it may decrease.

    2. With continued growth in population, pardons and early paroles will increase to keep the number of prisoners down. Some of these may not be ready for parole.

    3. Private prisons are increasing in numbers and are now a 25 billion dollar industry.

    4. Federally run prisons increased prison population oversight by about 12% from 2000 to 2009 due to the cost of private prisons being cheaper than federally run prisons.

    5. Employee costs are less in private companies, with benefits (pensions) being the main cost reduction.

    6. It takes much less time to build a new private prison due to much less red tape the private company has to go through to get permits, hire contractors, etc.

    7. Most prisons will have no problem staying 90% full withour the false arguement about Marijuana laws keeping them full. Maybe criminals serving 90% of their sentence will keep them that way.

    The arguements given need to be researched before a decision is made to jump off the clift and follow Barry’s and Adam’s positions that are quoted above. One needs all the facts and not just the far left position on a subject.

  5. 1. No matter who or what runs the prisons, the prison population is going to continue to grow. This growth is between 1%-2.5% a year, with a few years thrown in where it may decrease.

    That’s a fatalistic attitude toward an alarming statistic. Our population growth rate is only 1%, and our incarceration rate is already the highest in the world. Why on earth is prison growth inevitable?

  6. Thank you Dr. J. That needed to be said.

  7. We already have the incident in PA where a private prison was bribing a judge to fill beds throwing juveniles into the system for petty offenses. We also know that this runs 100% counter to an argument to reduce gov and gov interference since to keep growing the prison population in the nation with 25% of the worlds prison population we cant really roll back silly laws that put away nonviolent offenders.

    Why cant we for once be rational and admit that both sides are utterly batsh**. Gov does not do everything better and neither does the private market, they each have roles and they each have advantages and disadvantages in certain areas. This public private hybrid that we love to play footsy with is the same game that got us into the great depression and our most recent economic debacle as well. BUILD A WALL between gov and business and merely define their roles. The conservative argument that we should fear gov because they have the jackboots is utterly ruined when you give corps access to use/rent or borrow the jackboots for profit.

    I also agree that prison guard unions are a problem so we could again do something rational and get rid of collective capitol and collective labors ability to put undue pressure on our pols via campaign cash but of course that would be rational. To put it simply gov is best at taking care of its citizens and creating the best environment to make investment attractive. This includes having power over laws and prisons, healthcare, basic utilities, safety regulations of many varieties and physical safety of our borders(something that has really only been in question during WWII in the last 100 years). This creates an infrastructure that can support many industries by offering them a safe and well maintained environment with a well educated and cared for populace(meaning they dont come to work unknowingly with Hepitatis C or what have you).

    Business is at its best where it is competing for markets that are true choices not life and death matters like health or liberty issues like law and prisons. They are utterly unable to regulate themselves since we have by law created solely profit driven golems. This is not even why corps were created in the first place(and they are an arm of gov since they are created by it in a true libertarian system they dont even exist) they were created for the general welfare of the populace or to work on a single problem and then cease to exist. They dont give a flip about your liberty, your health, your ideology or your so called “rights” they are forced to focus like a laser only on profit and if that means bulldozing a few hundred undesirable lawbreakers then that is what they will do but to continue exponential growth we will need more laws that can imprison more people and they will be lobbying for it because to avoid that would be abdicating their sole concern according to law which is to seek profit.

    The “middle ground” is not a stance of “well lets have a little of both” when you are speaking on a topic that is so obviously flawed from the outset. This is akin to saying that the US gov should create and manufacturer IPhones and then when people point out the new devices kinda suck answering with “well if Apple would just give them all the designs and specs to do it right everything would be better and its already cheaper” no its cheaper because you are getting a subpar product and it will always be subpar because gov has no ability to make good IPhones like business has no interest in the public welfare and should butt out of those areas.

    Hoover was a huge fan of public private partnerships, it turned out badly and we are still playing the same game and hoping for a better result in a nearly religious manner since zero evidence exists that we will ever get a different result.

    Do we have crappy public utilities, ok sure they could be improved but they are much better than Enrons gaming the system to pump up prices out of crises-es that they created themselves. What will be the private prison equivalent? Silly rules that if broken you never get out, claims already exist that this has happened. Using prison labor to compete with free market labor for added prison profit while damaging public safety and privacy AND depressing wages in the industry in which they work, already common practice. Lobbying for ever harsher laws and sentencing when we already as a nation have 25% of the entire globes prisoners, happens every year.

    In the 70′s the kids got so mad about the draft that they rejected gov and embraced corps the world in which we live is a result of that emotional shift though to be fair the gov was way to muscular at that time and business way to patriotic. Neither of those things are true anymore and acting like business is going to save a nation they have zero loyalty to is as irrational as thinking that gov can create the next great consumer device and market it, and sell it and manufacture it…that is not what they are there for.

  8. As said above, this is pretty scary. I don’t care what the rationalization is for lower cost via using the private sector, they literally made keeping our prisons filled a requirement of the contract. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine you are obviously someone hardwired to not question authority.

  9. Well said, TMSF. I don’t see this as a conservative/liberal issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. There is nothing conservative about a business that exists only to perform a public function.

    Public/private partnerships are always tenuous because the interests are never aligned except possibly when the private party is a non-profit. You will end up with conflicts of interest. This goes for cases where the government forces private organizations to perform a public function as well as cases like this where a mutual agreement is reached.

    Public/private partnerships effectively increase the size of government by expanding government’s reach into private organizations, with or without their consent. In either case, conservatives should oppose the trend.

  10. To offer another point of view, the 90% target may be less egregious than it sounds. It’s probably less efficient to operate half-empty prisons, so anyone running them responsibly (whether public or private) should try to keep them either near capacity, or empty. CCA may not mean to suggest states should recruit more inmates to reach 90%, they may mean states should move inmates around.

  11. AD-I fully agree including about it being a better situation with nonprofits. Gov and business just infect one another with what is good for them and poison to the other. The extremes tend to only see the danger of one side while openly arguing that it is corrupt and merely infects what they care about and in their myopia miss that it works both ways. Build a wall I say.

  12. Unless one believes that there would only be privately run prisons in a state, which except for Alaska with only one state prison, 90% occupancy would easily be achieved by simple prisoner transfers. Since every prison and jail is funded per pop, just like schools or hospitals, a opening bargaining position that has a guarantee of min income is hardly some travesty of justice. I can see many reasons to be against private prisons but complaints about this smack of ignorance made up outrage.

  13. ‘guaranteeing’ prison pops remain above a certain level… reminds me of car sales on commission; either sell x number per month, or be gone. The only people who should be gone is any company that requires, REQUIRES, a prison pop to be x so it can make its nut daily. I’d privatize and limit ceo salaries before I’d vote for this kind of “privatizing” of prisons…

  14. the assumption that you will jail enough of your population to keep 1 prison at 90% suggests an ideology that man or society in general is inherently evil.

    Much like how Cheney believes that the world is doomed to be constantly at war. I personally find this line of thinking quite destructive.

    The privatization of our prison system is just another wing of political corruption based on campaign financing. “Keep my prisons full and I’ll toss your super pac a couple million.”

  15. Shannon, if prisons are like buses, and it’s more expensive to run a bunch of empty ones than a few full ones, isn’t this a perfectly sensible request? Indeed, shouldn’t the states be aiming for this already?

    Obviously it’s up to the states, not the contractors, whether to lock more people up or shift inmates around to manage capacity. Funny how y’all seem intent on blaming privatization.

  16. To the extent that privatization is about putting profits above just about anything else I don’t think it’s “funny” at all.

  17. A private company that goes into the prison business should have to run the risk that crime falls to the point where there are no profits to be made.

    but I keep forgetting that it is the governments job to make sure banks and prison companies have the funding they need to stay afloat.

  18. A private company that goes into the prison business should have to run the risk that crime falls to the point where there are no profits to be made.

    Indeed it should. And had the contract requested a minimum number of criminals, rather than a prison utilization target, that would be a relevant point.

    Of course it’s in the government’s interest to make sure the companies it has contracted with for important services can stay afloat. You wouldn’t deny those same workers a living wage if they worked for the government directly, right? Yet somehow if they get paid through another company, their collective livelihoods are a menace to society? You sure are working hard to defend inefficient, half-empty prisons.

  19. but I keep forgetting that it is the governments job to make sure banks and prison companies have the funding they need to stay afloat.

    You’re not far off the mark ShannonLeee the incarceration rate for non-violent, drug related crime has increased 1100% since 1981.

    As of 2006, 49.3% of state prisoners, or 656,000 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. As of 2008, 90.7% of federal prisoners, or 165,457 individuals, were incarcerated for non-violent offenses Drug offenses account for two-thirds of the federal inmate population; approximately half a million people are in prison for a drug offense today compared to 40,000 in 1981—an increase of 1,100 percent. Marijuana-related offenses is only minor cause for the increase of prisoners. In 2004 was approximately 12.7% of state prisoners and 12.4% of Federal prisoners were serving time for a cannabis related offense.
    Source: Wikipedia: United States incarceration rate

    And though the percentage of cannabis related offenses is relatively low (+/-12%) the odds of decriminalization of marijuana or legalization of ‘medical marijuana’ is extremely low when the private prison industry is spending millions upon millions of dollars lobbying congress.

    “Certain private prison companies, according to a recent report by Detention Watch Network, spend large sums of money to lobby the House of Representatives, the Senate, and several federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which incarcerates over 200,000 prisoners at any given time) and the Department of Homeland Security (which detains over 30,000 immigrants at any given time). According to nonprofit groups, CCA alone spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009, “often employing five or six firms at the same time,” and in 2010, CCA spent another $970,000 lobbying the federal government.”

    Source: Shapiro, David, “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration” American Civil Liberties Union (New York, NY: November 2, 2011), p. 38.

  20. To the extent that privatization is about putting profits above just about anything else I don’t think it’s “funny” at all.

    Zephyr, I live in a state where the public prison unions have *already succeeded* in getting more people imprisoned, to the point where prisons are overflowing and the courts have required us to start releasing convicts.

    So it’s hard to get too worked up over this case, where that (a) hasn’t happened, (b) couldn’t happen without the collusion of the state governments, and (c) doesn’t even seem to be what CCA is asking for. Your outrage seems misplaced.

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