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Why It Is Time To Be Done With Private Prisons

For a country nick-named “The Land of the Free”, the U.S. has a seeming obsession with putting people behind bars. And, with a shoulder-sagging sense of inevitability, incarcerating people has also been turned into a potential money-making venture with the rise of private prisons in recent years.

One of the hang-ups of the majority of the right-wing is that the free-market always knows best and does best, irrespective of the product or service. Well, if you want to have the choice of 20 different sodas, sure, why not? However, some things are just not meant to be in private hands – in particular, prisons.

Private prisons are a modern concept that only emerged in the 1980s when the Reagan’s laissez-faire approach to the economy melted effortlessly into the now infamous “War on Drugs”, resulting in a lot more people ending up behind bars. [1] Private prisons have been with us ever since. In 2016, President Obama issued a memo directing the Justice Department to begin phasing them out. In the run-up to the 2016 Presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders indicated that if they secured office, they would look to end the use of private prisons.

Unsurprisingly, given Trump’s pathological obsession to reverse (or simply sully) anything Obama-themed, in 2017, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama order. [2]

Rates of incarceration in the U.S. are much higher than those in comparable Western countries. While there are discrepancies between each state (with Oklahoma presently “number one” for locking people up) the rates are concerning. With regards to those relatively more lenient states:“…even [they] lock people up at higher rates than nearly every other country on Earth. Compared to the rest of the world, every U.S. state relies too heavily on prisons and jails to respond to crime.” [3]

The concept of a private prison is fundamentally flawed from the outset. Private entities operating in the free-market are, by definition, dependent on customers. In this instance, for customers, read inmates. Extend that logic further and you arrive at private prisons needing more crime, as more convicted criminals mean more incarcerations and therefore more profit.

Add to that how entities in the private sector are inevitably cost-driven and have poorer performance measures than non-private prisons.

“[Private prisons] tend to cut back on staff costs and training…researchers found that private facilities pay their officers less, provide fewer hours of training, and have higher inmate-to-staff ratios, a combination which may account for their much higher turnover rate among correctional officers, as well as the uptick in inmate assaults.” [4]

It should then still come as no surprise that the companies that run private prisons have a strong lobbying presence in Washington D.C. and that they have spent large sums of money trying to influence legislation. To put it bluntly, for them, crime really does pay. Consequently, changes to drug laws, for example, to reduce custodial sentences have been resisted by the lobbying efforts of private prison companies.

“Corrections Corporations of America (C.C.A.), the largest for-profit prison company in the United States, has said explicitly that changes to drug laws and sentencing, as well as immigration reform, would hurt its business.” [5]

The reality here is that some elements of society simply cannot be run on a for-profit, private basis. The vast majority of American roads, infrastructure, parks, monuments and so on are publically owned and paid for. (The idea of staunch “anti-socialists” who rail about anything publically owned is laughable when they then later head off home on a public highway). Like-wise the police and the military, those icons of the American right, are publically paid for and owned for so as to be to the benefit of us all.

So it is then that prisons are the same. They are one of the end products of the judicial system in the US – a judicial system that, again, is publically funded, publically owned and for the collective good of society. As opposed to the specific good of a profit margin.

Consequently, the administration of justice, including custodial sentences, should always be elevated above the potentially murky waters of the free-market economy.






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