For-Profit Prisons: A Barrier to Serious Criminal Justice Reform

Image courtesy meria.net
Image courtesy meria.net

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Anyone interested in prison reform is aware the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Even though our country is large, only five percent of the world’s population inhabit the US. Incredibly, the country’s jails and prisons house 25 percent of all the inmates on the planet. An astounding one-quarter of all of the world’s prisoners are spending time behind bars in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in every 33 adults in the U.S. is incarcerated in America’s jails or prisons.   

A major contributor to these outrageous statistics, which have doubled since 1990 is the “war on drugs” that has transformed into “the war on indigent people.”

The reasons for incarceration discrimination do not end with economic status. People of color are disproportionately locked-up for minor offenses. A significant factor for this social ill is a lingering policy that has sent countless offenders to prison for years. A small amount of crack cocaine found in the pockets of poor blacks has sent them to prison for decades. However, middle or upper-class whites will endure a mere “slap on the wrist” for cocaine offenses.   

More people are behind bars because of drugs than murder, rape or any other violent offense and it is costing tax-payers more than $50 billion a year to keep this atrocity going.

There is only one entity that is benefiting from this out of control economic disaster. The prison industry.

Business moguls have gotten wind of the mass incarceration problem in the U.S. and are making profits off of a deteriorating situation.

The high cost of for-profit prisons is the underlying cause for the loss of liberty for millions of incarcerated individuals who are paying a high price for non-violent crimes. For-profit prisons are burdening the government and tax-payers with escalating debt. Outrageously, most of this funding is not improving prison conditions or the recidivism rate.

For-profit businesses want return customers. 

Meanwhile, private prison executives rake in multimillion dollar compensation packages.

Private prison officials are now admitting they are getting a little worried. They are confessing a concern that if prison policies begin allowing for lowering conviction eligibility and sentencing terms they would be in big trouble. Their profits are contingent upon how many people are locked-up. Just like the hotel business, the longer the stays, more money into their pockets.    

For example, in a 2010 annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest private prison company stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices …”

The math is simple. As incarceration rates soar, so does for-profit prison commerce.

Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Americans locked-up increased by roughly 1600 percent. In the year 2010 alone, two of the biggest for-profit prison companies brought in almost $3 billion.  

For-profit prison executives are savvy when it comes to making money, but when it comes time to deliver the goods, private prisons fail. They end up costing taxpayers more money than public prisons and do not follow through with the economic benefits they claim to offer.

The truth of the matter is prison privatization is a deceitful proposition. For-profit prison agents are misleading states into privatization with false marketing tactics that claim private prisons save money. The truth is private prisons are draining money that could be used for serious criminal justice reform.  

For-profit prisons not only cut corners by not offering reform programs, but some are reported to have despicable conditions and untrained staff. Empirical investigations prove some private prisons are experiencing increased incidences of violence. The probable explanation for this set-back is corporate motivation to increase profits at the expense of hiring unqualified personnel.  

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 private juvenile facility in Texas, for example, auditors reported, “[c]ells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine.”  

There is an urgent need to regulate U.S. for-profit prison bureaucracies. Criminal justice reform is not possible until legislation can control the private prison industry’s ravenous appetite for mass incarceration.

For-profit prisons are costing the public more money without keeping them any safer. When prisoners are released without reform they are more likely to reengage in criminal activities when they are returned to society. Criminal justice reform is only possible by offering reentry programs that promote reform and lower the recidivism rate.

Corporate greed is not the solution to ending mass incarceration.   

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