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.


Learning from My Students

We’re at that point in the semester when my students in Law and Public Policy are doing their team presentations–sharing the results of research via Power Points and mock debates. More than one of these presentations has taught me something I didn’t know. (This is one of the “perks” of the profession, actually–you learn a lot when you teach.)

One of the teams chose to research prison privatization, a subject about which I know very little.

They began by noting that private prisons were rare prior to 1980, that they became more common in the eighties, and that between 1990 and 2009, America experienced a 1600% increase in its prison population. Given the significant sums of money involved,  they wondered whether this dramatic increase in incarceration might be at least partially explained by contractual obligations to fill cells in those proliferating private facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group dominate the private prison industry, and according to the students’ research, the industry is very profitable. (Corrections Corporation of America had a share price of $1 in 2000; in 2013 it was $34.34.) In one representative contract, in Tennessee, CCA was guaranteed an occupancy rate of 90%, a guarantee that required frequent moves of inmates out of public facilities and into the private ones. Both the guarantee and the frequent shuffling of prisoners are evidently common.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to recognize that inmates–large numbers of whom have not been convicted of violent crimes– are entitled to be treated humanely. The number of fines, lawsuits and investigations into the management of these facilities strongly suggests that the profit motive takes precedence over the provision of basic medical care, nutrition and even physical safety.

Where there’s profit, there’s usually politics, and private prisons are no exception.

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly undertook to modernize the state’s criminal code. One of the original changes would have reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of pot; however, Governor Pence intervened, insisting that penalties for marijuana possession and dealing be increased rather than decreased.

According to a news article at the time,

 One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor. Indiana is eighth on the list of states where GEO does its spending, as it’s sunk more than $60,000 into state elections there. It specifically contributed $12,500 to the 2012 Pence campaign, which doesn’t seem like much without context. That contribution made GEO one of Pence’s top 30 corporate contributors, ranking in front of US Steel Corp, Caterpillar, and Koch Industries.

When prisons are profit centers, the incentives are all perverse. 


Surprise, Surprise

Last week, there was a fair amount of publicity about a study issued by the Justice Policy Institute that found—drum roll, please–that private prison operators lobby for more stringent criminal laws.

In other news, the sun rose in the east yesterday.

There are certainly instances in which government outsourcing makes sense, but operating prisons is not one of them. As many observers of what I call “privatization ideology” warned when the first private prisons began operating, incarceration for profit is simply untenable: the incentives involved are inconsistent with good public management.  Prisons aren’t businesses, and they cannot and should not be run as businesses.

When a company’s profits depend upon jailing more people for longer periods, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those companies will lobby for ever-more draconian laws and extended sentences. If that lobbying is successful, it will cost taxpayers much more than they saved by outsourcing (assuming the much-touted savings are real to begin with.)

It isn’t just prison outsourcing that threatens to distort policy-making. The United States no longer has a military draft, and we currently have more “contractors” in Iraq and Afghanistan than we do citizen-soldiers. As I pointed out in a paper several years ago, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, there are significant moral, legal and strategic problems that arise when governments essentially hire mercenaries to do their dirty work. For one thing, it is far easier to opt for a military “solution” to a problem when the Congressman casting the vote can simply “hire” soldiers, and doesn’t have to go home to his district and justify drafting his constituents. For another, the multi-national companies that provide the “soldiers for hire” have a vested economic interest in military combat.

Private prison operators lobby for stricter sentencing. Does anyone really believe that private companies providing combat services won’t lobby for war?