Private prison industry profits from mass incarcerationTuesday, February 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm by Chris Erchull
A recent study released by The Sentencing Project analyzes the rapid growth of the private prison industry in the United States between 1999 and 2010. Privatization is intended to create greater economic efficiency, but there is little evidence that this goal has been achieved:
Private prisons supporters assert that the private sector saves resources through greater efficiencies. These claims are supported by some reports showing that private prisons produce cost savings, largely through lower salaries and benefits by employing mostly nonunion employees. It is also argued that governments can benefit in the short term through the direct sale of correctional facilities to private companies and can save money when constructing new facilities through public-private initiatives, rather than solely through government funding. However, studies have shown these benefits to be mostly illusory.
The economic benefits have not materialized, but according to a November report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) there are very real costs:
While evidence is mixed, certain empirical studies show a heightened level of violence against prisoners in private institutions. This may reflect in part the higher rate of staff turnover in private prisons, which can result in inexperienced guards walking the tiers. After an infamous escape from an Arizona private prison in 2010, for example, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported that at the prison, “[s]taff are fairly ‘green’ across all shifts,” “are not proficient with weapons,” and habitually ignore sounding alarms. Private facilities have also been linked to atrocious conditions. In a juvenile facility in Texas, for example, auditors reported, “[c]ells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine.”
According to The Sentencing Project, there is a great political risk involved with prison privatization:
Private prison companies’ dependence on ensuring a large prison population to maintain profits provides inappropriate incentives to lobby government officials for policies that will place more people in prison. This is evidenced by the creation and coordination of model legislation through conservative lobbying groups, as well as in the political contributions and lobbying efforts of individual companies. This effort to increase reliance on incarceration comes at a time where America’s rate of imprisonment is the highest in the world and when the prison population is far beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of public safety.
In a 2005 article in the Duke Law Journal, Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, foreshadows the grave political dangers in more detail:
The private prison industry, to increase the demand for its services, exerts whatever pressure it can to encourage state legislators to privatize state prisons. This effort does not necessarily suggest a parsimony concern, for the fact of privatization alone need not affect the number of individuals who are actually incarcerated or the length of prison sentences. But what if the private prison industry were exerting political pressure on state legislators not only to encourage a shift to privatization, but also to generate harsher sentencing regimes? This would create the possibility that the state’s sentencing policies, and thus the sentences imposed pursuant to them, are inconsistent with the priority of the most urgent interests and instead serve the financial interests of the private prison industry and the politicians who accept campaign contributions from industry members. By creating an industry capable of, and with an interest in, corrupting the legislative conditions for legitimate punishment, the state’s use of private prisons would be directly at odds with the demands of the parsimony principle.
The ACLU report echoes these concerns:
Tactics employed by some private prison companies, or individuals associated with the private prison industry, to gain influence or acquire more contracts or inmates include: use of questionable financial incentives; benefiting from the “revolving door” between public and private corrections; extensive lobbying; lavish campaign contributions; and efforts to control information.
Unfortunately, this is just one example (another is the National Defense Authorization Act) of corporate concerns trumping the Constitution in Congress.