President Trump Preaches Privatization

Trump seems poised to reverse the previous administration's stance on phasing out private, for-profit prisons.
Trump seems poised to reverse the previous administration’s stance on phasing out private, for-profit prisons.

by Christopher Zoukis

In the weeks and days leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, he made several statements about privatization — and his team is full of privatization supporters. From public television, to Veterans Affairs to prisons — there are many things he seems to be considering privatizing.

As prisons go, this is a very big step away from the stances and actions of the Obama administration, which announced in August 2016 that private prisons would be phased out. The Department of Justice released a memo detailing the decision after reviewing their privately run operations and finding that those prisons didn’t save money and weren’t safer than government-run facilities, which are two of the traditional arguments in favor of private institutions.

Privatization has been heavily favored by Trump’s choice for Attorney General — Jeff Sessions —  and was reiterated by Trump at an MSNBC town hall in March 2016, where he discussed the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and the mixed reports on its effects on the prison population.

“I think that as far as drug legalization, we talk about marijuana, and in terms of medical, I think I am basically for that.  I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.  I’m watching Colorado very carefully to see what’s happening out there.  I’m getting some very negative reports, I’m getting some OK reports.  But I’m getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening, so we’ll see what happens.

 I think a lot of people are really looking at Colorado (ph) for prison reform.  I think our — as you know, our prison system is a disaster, it’s complete disaster all over the country.  Almost everything we have, Chris, if you want to know the truth, is a disaster

I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons.  It seems to work a lot better,” Trump said.

Trump’s stance seems clear, but he hasn’t outlined any details for his reforms, nor why he thinks private prisons work better.

In reality, any savings at private prisons are generally the result of cutting corners. Private prisons may refuse to take sick or elderly prisoners in order to reduce health care costs, and they are more likely to employ younger, lesser-trained guards, with higher inmate-guard ratios, resulting in less-safe environments for both prisoners and prison employees.

In 2014 Corrections Corporation of America lost their contract to run the prison dubbed “Gladiator School,” — the Idaho Correctional Centre — the state’s largest prison, after many violent incidents had that resulted in numerous lawsuits. Private prisons also tend to lack suitable rehabilitative programming, which makes sense when you’re running a facility to make a profit, and that profit is based on how many beds are filled — not how successful at rehabilitation you are.

The two main concerns about private prisons are that rehabilitation and programs are not emphasized, and that their very existence depends on — and reinforces — mass incarceration. Many current contracts require that prisons operate at least at 80 percent capacity. The government is actually fined if this is not the case. This contributes to a system where there is no incentive to change sentencing structure, reduce sentences, or to reduce incarceration or recidivism rates.

We shouldn’t support a system that continues to reinforce our current cycle of mass incarceration; we already have the largest prison population in the world. Trump needs to focus on how to reduce incarceration, not maintain this broken, unwieldy and unfair system, which results in billion dollars in profits for two big private prison corporations and the six big Wall Street banks. If private prisons are to continue, there should be revisions to their operational structure and their contracts, and incentives should be based on performance, not how many cells are filled. By moving to a performance-based model, the government ensures that it’s not advocating imprisonment, but advocating reform. Move to incentivize the reduction in recidivism and the operating of demonstrably successful rehabilitation programs. Systems like this have been working in Australia, and closer to home in Pennsylvania. This country should not take steps backward from the reforms launched by the Obama administration. The Trump administration must continue to focus on reform. There is too deep a human and societal impact to seeking to fill prisons to capacity.  

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com