Private Prisons

The fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution states that “[No] State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[1] As defined by the Magna Carta, due process refers to the “law of the land” or “the lawful judgment of his equals”.[2] The business of privatized prisons is one that is threatening the entire idea of justice in the United States. When operated by the state, the goal of a prison is to rehabilitate the inmates and lessen the prison population. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a privatized, for-profit prisons’ goals are to increase the population of their prisons and keep the prisoners there for as long as possible, maximizing their profits. Not only do privatized prisons fail to solve public problems, they also create new ones. With the privatized prison industry growing constantly every year, it will soon be too late for the American government to realize the obvious and detrimental flaws it has, which is why the American government should ban private prisons as a whole.

The first reason as to why private prisons should be banned is derived from a practical, economic standpoint. Private companies operate two hundred sixty four prisons in the United States, housing almost one hundred thousand offenders. The primary reason as to why private prisons are growing in popularity is due to their cost. Advocates of prison privatization claim that they have the ability to run these institutions in a much less expensive manner then that of the government. As well, an argument made constantly by privatized prison organizations is that because they do not have to deal with state bureaucracy, numerous laws and red tape, they can manage their facilities in a less expensive manner. It is because of these false claims of saving taxpayers money that the privatized prison industry is thriving in America.

Though at first glance the claims made by the private prison companies seem legitimate, dozens of studies carried out to investigate this claim say otherwise. The first major blow to the cost effectiveness argument came in 1996, when the United States General Accounting Office released a report reviewing the claim made by privatized prisons. They spent an entire year studying comprehensive studies comparing the operational costs of several private and public U.S. prisons. According to this study, they noticed “little difference”, “mixed results”, and in the end “could not conclude whether privatization saved money.”[3]

As well, one of the most comprehensive studies on the supposed cost effectiveness of privatized prisons, Private Prisons in the United States: An Assessment of Current Practice, concluded with similar inconclusive findings. Written in 1998 to fulfill a mandate from the U.S. Congress, the study, when referring to cost savings, deduced that the “survey of recent cost studies does not resolve the question of whether privately-managed prisons are cheaper than publicly-managed ones.  The evidence is mixed, with the more detailed studies indicating the smallest cost savings from privatization.”[4] Both major studies on the cost effectiveness of privatized prisons proved inconclusive, severely contradicting the claims made by the private prison industry.

Yet the studies do not stop there. Dozens of studies have been undertaken in order to validate the claims made by the privatized prison companies. A majority of studies prove inconclusive or disprove the claim, and any studies that suggest cost savings are in fact legitimate, are highly questionable. In Kentucky, the state with the largest growing prison population, they are considering introducing several more private prisons to contain the surplus of prisoners. The state’s Chamber of Commerce claims private prisons save the state two thousand five hundred dollars per prisoner. Challenging this claim, Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission released a contradicting report stating, “The original projection compared different prisoner populations and was not accurate.”[5] According to Michele Deitch, a University of Texas professor who was part of an American Bar Association task force that drafted proposed national standards on the treatment of prisoners, “It is a myth that private prisons can provide services better and more cheaply then those run by the government.”

Along with the argument of cost-efficiency, proponents of the privatized prison industry state that due to the cost savings, they are able to run their prisons in a more efficient manner then that of public prisons. Yet in truth, in order to materialize the promises they have made pertaining to reducing costs while maintaining a profit, many privatized prisons will cut back on several of their expenses. They do this by lowering the rate of their rehabilitation programs, food and medical care, in addition to hiring inexperienced staff in order to lower their salaries. By lessening the quality of their services, the companies manage to make it seem as though they are more cost efficient, while still managing to achieve high profits.

Due to the cut backs made by the privatized prison industry, many studies show findings of terrible standards of security within the prisons, as well as a substantially larger number of cases of inmates towards both staff and other prisoners. In order to assess a certain prison’s operations there are many indicators that allow one to understand the overall quality of security within the prison. One of the most reliable indicators is the rate at which inmates test positive for the use of drugs and alcohol. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ study entitled Private Prisons in the United States, 1999: An Assessment of Growth, Performance, Custody Standards, and Training Requirements, the percentages of positive results in private prisons is much higher then in public.

In public prisons, on average, the positive findings for random drug tests range between zero and three percent. Random drug tests carried out in private prisons revealed that about forty percent had a drug positive percentage of over three percent, and a shockingly high twenty ten percent of prisons had a percentage of ten or higher[6]. Another indicator of the overall quality of a prison is the amount of violence within its walls. According to a nation-wide study, assaults on guards by inmates were forty nine percent more frequent in private prisons than in government-run prisons. As well, the study revealed that assaults on fellow inmates were sixty five percent more frequent in private prisons. The astonishingly high figures for both drug and alcohol consumption, as well as violence within private prisons, show that, as a result of lower staff levels and training, the quality of security within the facilities are not only not better then that of public prisons, but are in fact much worse.

Cutting back on the quality of services a private prison provides bring to light the overwhelming controversy privatized prisons entail. The idea of shifting the responsibility for the ultimate sanction by which America measures normative behavior to large industrial companies whose motives are maximizing profits, is one of great debate. Though this is a philosophical question void of a definite answer, and in theory may seem promising, in practice, the ramifications of a privatized prison industry are troubling. The profit incentive, coupled with massive amounts of taxpayer dollars, fosters corruption at every level of the justice system.

As an industry, private prison company’s goals are to maximize profits and protect their bottom line. In a March 1997, CCA acknowledged that “the rate of construction of new facilities and the Company’s potential for growth will depend on a number of factors, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in the United States.”[7] Due to this incentive to increase their prison’s population, inmates in private prisons now account for 9% of the total US prison population, up from 6% in 2000.[8]

Private prison companies manage to corrupt America’s justice system both directly and indirectly. An indirect form of corruption, repeatedly practiced by some of the largest companies in the industry, is massive financial contributions to public officials and organizations. Reasons as to why these companies find it necessary to essentially bribe these public figures range from receiving lucrative prison contracts to heavily influencing American legislation pertaining to the prison industry.

One of many examples of the corruption of a public policy organization is that of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a Washington D.C. based organization that develops legislation that advances tough-on-crime legislation and free-market principles such as privatization. It is because of ALEC’s ability to pass legislature that increases the conviction rates of criminals that two of the largest privatized prison companies in the industry are major contributors to their funding. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, along with other corporations, provide most of the funding for ALEC’s operating budget and influence its political agenda through participation in policy task forces.

Another example of the private prison industries ability to corrupt public sectors, besides substantial contributions to organizations that will support their corrupt agenda, is the incentive of high paying positions at their companies for public officials.[9] Private firms constantly provide high paid positions to former public officials, in return for political support. For instance, in the case of Frank Prewitt, an ex-commissioner for the Alaska Department of Corrections, it is obvious that a private company bribed him after he spoke out against prison privatization within Alaska. In his memos he stated that due to “public safety concerns” and the state’s “demographics,” building private prisons in Alaska was not a good idea. Two years later, he became the President of Allvest Inc., a private corrections company, and presumably has changed his stance. By providing public officials with lucrative job offers the private correctional facilities manage to directly influence policies made regarding their expansion in the U.S., as well as maximization of their profits.

As stated earlier, the fourteenth amendment states that each American citizen is entitled to due process. In accordance to this amendment, one would expect to, if charged with a crime, be subjected to a fair trial. A fair trial entails having a judge without any pre-determined decisions in their mind, as well as one who is completely impartial to the matters of the trial. Though this seems obvious, this is not the case with many judges being corrupted by the privatization industry. There are an overwhelming amount of examples of the corruption of judges, as well as police officers, who are paid by private prisons to incarcerate innocent men, women, and children, and extend their sentences for as long as possible.

In 2008, two Pennsylvania judges plead guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud in a scheme that involved sending thousands of juveniles to two private detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks. The scandal involving Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who ran that juvenile court for 12 years, and Judge Michael T. Conahan, a colleague on the county’s Court of Common Pleas, was referred to as “the biggest legal scandal in state history.”[10] Due to the fact that judges have the ability to sentence people based on their own whim, there have been dozens of cases of corruption and bribery facilitated by private prison corporations. Not only are the judges corrupted but so too are the police officers.

An example of corruption within a law force is that of the Sherriff of East Carroll Parish, Los Angeles. Authorities found the two employees of the private East Carroll Corrections System guilty of multiple counts of mail fraud and money laundering. The scheme involved the East Carroll Parish sheriff’s office, which fraudulently overpaid lease payments to the private prison company, which then funneled three hundred forty thousand dollars from these ‘overpayments’ back to the sheriff. In return for the bribe, the sheriff had vested interest in the success of the private prison in his town, and unjustly arrested citizens for the most minimal of offences.

The arguments against the privatization of the prison industry in America are clear. Passing the responsibility of incarcerating criminals from the government on to private, profit-motivated companies entails a significant amount of detrimental repercussions, and has managed to reveal little to no advantages.

Several studies show that the claims made by proponents of privately run prisons of cost-savings and efficiency of operation placing private prisons at an advantage over public prisons, “have simply not materialized”.[11] In fact, prison privatization creates incentives to grow the prison population, pushing up long-term prison costs. As well, because the private prison industry deals with millions of taxpayer dollars, there is a substantial amount of corruption and bribery that surrounds the industry as a whole.

It is for these reasons that the private prison industry in America should be banned. “When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles” (Thomas Jefferson).

[1] “U.S. Constitution – Amendment 14 – The U.S. Constitution Online –” The U.S. Constitution Online. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <>.

[2] “Treasures in Full: Magna Carta.” THE BRITISH LIBRARY – The World’s Knowledge. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <>.

[3] U.S. General Accounting Office, “Private And Public Prisons: Studies Comparing Operational Costs and/or Quality Of Service”, GAO/GGD-96-158, August 1996, pgs. 3, 7, 9, 23.

[4] Nielson, Julianne. Private Prisons in the United States: An Assessment of Current Practice. Rep. MA: Cambridge, 1998. Print.

[5] Dunlop, R. G. “Behind the Bars Experts Question Benefits of Private Prisons.” Courier Journal [Kentucky] 5 July 2010. Print.

[6] Austin, James, and Garry Coventry. Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons. Rep. Bureau of Justice Assistance, February 2008. Print.

[7] “Corrections Corporation of America – Quarterly Results.” Corrections Corporation of America – Investor Relations. Web. 02 Dec. 2010. <>.

[8] W, W. “The Perverse Incentives of Prisons.” The Economist 24 Aug. 2010. Web

[9] “Prison Payoff: The Role of Politics in the Incarceration Boom | PSJ.” PSJ | Partnership for Safety and Justice. Web. 02 Dec. 2010. <>.

[10] Mastropolo, Frank. “Judges Accused of Jailing Kids for Cash – ABC News.” – Breaking News, Politics, World News, Good Morning America, Exclusive Interviews – ABC News. Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <>.

[11] Topic, By. “Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004.” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <>.