States Should Follow Feds On Rethinking Private Prisons

A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.
A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently the US Department of Justice announced they would be closing all privately run federal prisons, declining to renew contracts, or significantly reducing the scope of private prison contracts.

This comes following a report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General indicating that private companies do a poor job of housing or caring for inmates, and found serious problems with a number of categories involving the safety and security of inmates.

The switch away from contract prisons may lead to cost savings, and reduce problems such as contraband, incidents of violence, and lockdowns. Private prisons were found to have higher levels of property damage and bodily harm. One prison riot over poor food quality and medical care in Mississippi caused the death of a correctional officer, and injured 20 people.

Eight times more contraband cell phones were confiscated at contract prisons as in Bureau of Prisons institutions. New inmates at some of the contract prisons were found to be improperly housed in solitary. Services such as vocational training and education are provided at a lower level at private companies. Thus, ending contract prisons and bringing them back into the BOP fold should result in some benefits to the inmates and to society, including a reduction in recidivism, since this is linked to the availability of higher quality programs focused on rehabilitation the provision of other opportunities.

These changes will affect 22,000 inmates that are housed federally across the country, with an aim of a 50% reduction in the number housed in private facilities by May 2017. Several states have also made promises to de-privatize prisons, noting the greater benefits, and the growing recognition that for-profit prisons may skew crime rates. If there is incentive to have more prisoners, this can negatively affect sentencing, and could send more people to prison for longer — people who otherwise might be diverted into different types of punishment. The for-profit model is partly responsible for our system of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding.

Already states including Texas, Idaho, Colorado, and Mississippi have announced, already closed, or taken over privately run facilities.  Should Florida, and other states, follow in their wake? Florida, for example, currently has seven private prisons housing approximately 10,000 inmates, in addition to all juvenile corrections, and fund inmate services such as health care, education, and vocational training. While these numbers may not seem like a large portion of the 2.5 million incarcerated individuals in the US, the yearly cost to house Florida inmates alone in private prisons is $142 million.

It’s reasonable to think that, if privately contracting prison services is costlier, less safe, and less effective, we should abandon the use of private prisons. Institutions like prisons should not be for-profit businesses, in whose best interest it is to see a continual increase in the prison population. They are guaranteed fat bank accounts through paying prisoners low wages — 25 cents per hour in many cases — and raking in income through contracting their labor. This is the opposite of what we should strive for: rehabilitation, less prison time, and the creation of safer and more secure communities through the proper oversight of prisons.

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