The American Flag is arguably the most recognized symbol of justice, freedom, and democracy around the world. However, many injustices often go unnoticed within America’s borders. Ironically, one of those injustices has to do directly with our system of criminal justice and more specifically, the privatization of prisons, the very instruments erected to protect America from those who threaten its principles of law and order.
Private prisons are places in which people are imprisoned by a third party contracted by a government agency. Why are we linking prisoner rehabilitation with a company whose sole purpose is to make a profit? The answer is quite simple: money.
So, how did this all start?
The history of private prisons in America can be traced all the way back to 1844 when Louisiana privatized one of its prisons. Privatization became increasingly common post-Civil War when many emancipated African-Americans were arrested and sentenced to time in jail as a means of reinstating the previous social hierarchy defined by slavery that existed before the Civil War.
However, when the issue of private prisons is discussed in its modern context, the most important historical development took place in 1983, when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the very first private corrections company, was founded. CCA, now known as Core Civic, is currently worth billions of dollars and since 1983, more and more companies have begun to get into this growing industry of shamelessly making money off prisoners.
Just how big is this industry? According to the Sentencing Project, “Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 121,718 people in 2017, representing 8.2% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased by 39%.” Private prisons continue to churn out billions of dollars a year at the expense of the prisoners, but yet some still wonder why private prisons are so detrimental to society.
Some may argue that the government continues to contract these prisons because they are running at a higher efficiency; however, this is almost never true. Private prisons cut corners in order to increase profits.
First, the shortcuts that private prison companies take in order to maximize the amount of money is going into their pockets. These shortcuts include under-hiring staff, low-quality meals and commodities, and terrible healthcare services. The most recent nationwide Bureau of Justice Assistance report comparing public and private prisons found that nationwide, private prisons had 65.8 percent more inmate assaults and 48.7 percent more assaults on staff than public prisons.
Organizations like the Corrections Corporation of America spend millions of dollars on lobbying in order to protect private prisons. From 1999-2010, for instance, the CCA spent on average $1.4 million per year on lobbying at the federal level and employed a yearly average of seventy lobbyists at the state level according to the Sentencing Project.
For example, in the Arizona Department of Corrections Security Assessment of the Kingman Prison, it was found that the perimeter was left unmonitored for 15 minutes at the start of every shift, with only a single person monitoring the entire perimeter at the time of the escape; that there were so many false alarms (89 during the 16-hour study period) that staff learned to disregard them; that one-third of the security staff had less than three months on the job and that there was no official training program.
Nationwide, corrections officers employed by private corporations earn up to $23,850 less on average in annual salary compared to the public sector according to the Sentencing Project. These shortcuts are all indicative of the systemic issue of private prisons weighing profits over prisoner safety, health, and rehabilitation.
Next, the actual economic disadvantages that these private prisons have on local communities. In a 2013 study from Washington State University, it was found that “the privatization of prisons often has a negative impact on employment prospects in host counties.” Private prisons typically fail to deliver on promised cost savings, even though median wages at private prisons are more than 25 percent lower than those at public facilities.
With privatization, the local economy loses the economic benefit that comes with fairly-paid public employees spending their paychecks locally. In Littlefield, Texas, a community of just over 6,000 residents has been paying $1 million per year since 2009 to cover the debt and maintenance costs for its empty prison, eliminating 100 local jobs according to NPR. Private prisons are clearly harmful to the economy and they need to be given to the state and federal government to regulate.
Private prisons are fundamentally set up to fail due to the very notion that profit is the driving factor behind the establishment of these institutions. It is time we do what is right and abolish the practice of privatization in America.