Why Prisons Should Never Be Privatized

There are some things that government–not the private sector–simply must do.

As I have written many times before, whether it makes sense to “contract out” the provision of government services is not an either-or question. The decision will depend upon a number of considerations: is this a core government responsibility? is it important to maintain institutional competence? does the government agency have the ability to adequately monitor contractors?

And especially–what are the negative consequences we might anticipate from a decision to grant governmental authority to private, for-profit enterprises?

The Justice Policy Institute has just released a report confirming a major concern voiced by critics of private prisons: the likelihood that those who profit from incarceration will lobby for harsher criminal justice penalties and seek to derail needed justice system reforms.

According to the report,  private prison companies actively engage in lobbying intended to protect and grow their profits, by working for harsh policies and longer sentences.

The authors report that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, respectively. As ThinkProgress reports,

Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.

JPI claims the private industry hasn’t merely responded to the nation’s incarceration woes, it has actively sought to create the market conditions (ie. more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.

According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

One of the primary reasons governments exist is to provide for the public safety. Decisions about the most effective ways to accomplish that should be made on the basis of evidence, by disinterested policymakers carefully considering what the research tells us about the efficacy of various approaches.

The private prison industry is spending millions of dollars opposing efforts to reform the nation’s drug laws–reforms based upon years of research demonstrating that the Drug War has been a costly failure, and that imprisoning thousands of low-level offenders has been counter-productive.

Americans spend millions of dollars on the criminal justice system. Those dollars are supposed to make us safer–not make private interests richer.


  1. This is a great piece, Sheila. I just wanted to add on by encouraging your readers to research and try to avoid buying from companies that benefit from the privatization of prison.

  2. The need to reform Indiana’s drug laws has been in the news for a few years, but nothing changes even though we spend billions on low level offenders and those offenders suffer financially due to job losses. This costs us even more when you consider the tax dollars spent to support single moms and their children that no longer receive child support from the imprisoned fathers.

    Pence accepts money from the private prison corporations, so he definitely wants to keep the laws in place that put money in the pockets of his financial backers. I wonder how many of our state legislators (and who they are) also accept money from the private prison profiteers.

  3. While reading the JPI report linked in your post, I found that GEO is a multinational corporation operating in United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. This provokes a question as to how the TPP will impact “for profit” prisons. It has been reported that if a signatory country passes laws that affect these multi-nationals, the countries can be sued by the corporations for damages. If this is so we may soon be trapped in a hell there is no escape from.

  4. Those of us who work for relegalization of Cannabis have realized this for a long time. Note which presidential candidates are taking money from the Privatized Prison industries. All but one of them.

  5. Prisons for fun and profit: Awful system. These folks are not interested in the good of the American people. Any government activity should be. A few years back, a young man was beaten to death in one of our IN Pay for Profit Prisons. He was brain dead but a GREAT donor. His organs could have saved many people. (and he had INTENDED to be a donor) The prison folks bullied the Family and the hospital to NOT donate his organs. I kept waiting for charges to be filed. For heads to roll.. Nothing ever happened (that I heard of). Great example of how awful this system is.

  6. Health care and prisons should not be privatized and Professor, you have proven that multiple times in your blog which is why I come back everyday. All of the presidential candidates have taken donations from private prisons, including HRC, except for Bernie. He is the only candidate that doesn’t take money from corporations especially those waging a scam via gov’t funded healthcare, privatized prisons and last, but not least, military contractors that are all on the corporate welfare teet.
    This is corruption and we are all blind if we don’t see it.

    BTW, Bernie won the Democrats Abroad (worldwide) primary and beat Clinton 70% to 30%. Totals announced yesterday. #FeelTheBern

  7. Some privatization systems are beyond comprehension and comment; private prisons is a major example. To put convicted felons under the supervision and care of private companies, in business to make money, is questionable legally – or should be.

  8. A bit too naive and optimistic on your view of government run institutions and I feel you dropped the ball on how severe of a problem this is.

    Kind of surprised you didn’t bring up the scandals over judges being paid to increase the number of convictions, nor the threats to sue states for not meeting contracted occupancy quotas at private prisons.

  9. One of the most diabolical subliminal media messages employed by the business of conservatism in the attempted take over of democracy by oligarchy is equating socialism with communism, apparently an easy sell to the inadequately educated.

    Goods and services that require very large capital investments are rarely competitive markets. The barrier to entry is too high. Prisons are ideal markets for socialism and a terrible place for capitalism.

    Would we outsource to capitalism other aspects of law enforcement like courts and police and FBI and Secret Service and CIA? Even the slowest among us would see those as problematic and they don’t require the capital outlay of the prison system which is typically the last step of law enforcement.

    We’re getting robbed again folks but we can’t send the perps to the prisons that they own.

    Whether or not Bernie gets elected in no way detracts from his heroism in putting socialism back into our vocabulary as a solution, not a problem. He’s the true anti-Reagan.

  10. Privatization and profit are at cross purposes with serving the public. The government traditionally has taken on the jobs that require service to all – not just those who enable the provider to make profits. The post office delivers not just to multiple recipients in a single high-rise building where delivery costs per recipient are low but to the farmers who are 1 or 2 per mile where delivery is much more expensive.

    The public school system accepts all students – including the handicapped who require ramps and elevators and teachers with highly specialized training and an aide to help with hygiene needs and a school nurse to administer medications – while the private schools can deny enrollment to those who are expensive to serve.

    So I take real exception to the privatizers who cherry-pick those who cost the least to serve and leave the public providers to serve those most expensive to serve. Postage stamp costs never increased so fast in our history as when FedEx and UPS creamed off the profitable part of the mail service which had kept the cost of postage stamps and other mail service costs low.

    As it applies to prisons, privatization which cuts the quality of services to captive audiences can take on particularly sinister outcomes. Who’s to complain when food, laundry, custodial, medical, and educational services are substandard – sometimes dangerously so? Who listens to or cares about prisoners? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In few environments is power more absolute than in prisons.

  11. Sheila said, “The private prison industry is spending millions of dollars opposing efforts to reform the nation’s drug laws–reforms based upon years of research demonstrating that the Drug War has been a costly failure, and that imprisoning thousands of low-level offenders has been counter-productive.”

    What follows is from Huffington Post: Journalist Dan Baum wrote in the April cover story of Harper’s [harpers.org] about how he interviewed [John] Ehrlichman in 1994 while working on a book about drug prohibition. Ehrlichman provided some shockingly honest insight into the motives behind the drug war. From Harper’s:

    “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

    In other words, the intense racial targeting that’s become synonymous with the drug war wasn’t an unintended side effect — it was the whole point.

  12. EFK, wow. Just when we start to see the iceberg there comes the gut wrenching screams of the hull being torn away beneath us.

    It’s going to be a long cold swim back to home.

  13. Pete writes,

    “Would we outsource to capitalism other aspects of law enforcement like courts and police and FBI and Secret Service and CIA?”

    To which I can only reply, please, don’t give them any more ideas.

  14. Got the Harper’s in the mail yesterday. Must read that article, thanks EFK, for the reminder.

  15. In all this fluff I do not see enough speech concerning the underlining reason for incarceration. I would think it should be about keeping people from doing harm to others. Putting people in cages is an awful solution, however, in some cases, I hear nothing better.
    We live in a permissive society that allows us to do harm, in some cases even promotes it. The very things that give us pleasure when abused might cause harm. Illicit sexual behaviour, drugs, greed, self-centeredness, hatred and pure evil are at the center of the problem. Those who are forgiving of those practices and allow those who offend to walk among us, do not take into account how many lives are destroyed by those who inflict harm.
    Sadly, I see some are more compassionate to those who do harm than to those who are harmed.

  16. Peter; the reason you do not see enough speech concerning the underlying cause for incarceration to suit you is because that is not the issue. We all know why there are prisons and why people are incarcerated in them; the issue at hand is questioning the viability of privatizing prisons.

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