Three notions are hard to deny. If you are a capitalist, you probably believe running any industry privately makes better economic sense. On the other hand, some on the political left will argue that the government should supply essential services, including correctional facilities. Realists will see things as it is and say the prison system is overcrowded. In 2020, the U.S. prison system had roughly 2.3 million prisoners. There are too many people for government facilities to handle. Currently, about 198,000 inmates are housed in private prisons, also known as for-profit prison systems.
The big question remains, do private prisons save us money?
Do they offer better living conditions for inmates?
The relevance of such facilities remains a highly debated issue. The Obama administration tried to phase out privatized prisons, while the Trump administration was a godsend to the industry. Records show that Trump’s first year as president was the best money-making year for private prisons. As of January 27th, President Joe Biden vowed to phase out these facilities and end their profit incentives by not renewing their existing contracts.
What is true beyond debate is that for-profit prisons have crossed troubling lines by putting economic gain above public interests of rehabilitation and safety. According to the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, for-profit prisons experience more security and safety incidents per inmate compared to government institutions. The DOJ reaffirmed this by reporting that inmate-on-inmate violence and inmate-on-staff violence was more likely to happen in for-profit prisons by a whopping 28%.
A Brief History of For-Profit Prisons
Private prisons became a thing in the 1980s. This was right after the beginning of the war on drugs and various other tough-on-crime policies that resulted in mass incarceration. In 1983, T. Don Hutto, Doctor R. Crants, and Thomas Beasley established the Corrections Corporation of America, better known as CoreCivic. This was the first modern private prison company in the world.
The idea behind CoreCivic and other private prisons that emerged later was to make profits from government contracts. In exchange for providing inmates with basic needs like food, healthcare, and clothing, these companies would receive a specific pay per inmate from the taxpayer. The deal seemed pretty attractive, more so because it allowed the government to shift accountability to another party.
The state government saving itself from blame allows for-profit detention facilities to operate like regular businesses. This includes cutting corners to expand profit margins. The quality of staff in the prisons is questionable because officers are seen to have lesser training than officers in public prisons. Their lack of proper training and experience directly affects the quality of life afforded to the inmates.
In 2016, during the Obama administration, the Justice Department was ordered in a memo to reduce the number of prisoners sent to private prisons. This was after a DOJ report showed higher rates of violence and contraband in for-profit prisons than in their public counterparts. Unfortunately, the Attorney General quashed this memo in 2017, and the Trump administration showed zero intentions of revising the set policies.
The future is bright thanks to President Joe Biden’s vow to have private prisons phased out. On January 27th, Biden signed an executive action not to renew the existing contracts of these facilities. This is a significant win for criminal justice reform groups, although this executive action only applies narrowly because it doesn’t cancel existing contracts.
Do Private Detention Facilities Result In More Inmates And Longer Sentences?
A paper published in the journal Labor Economics by the Washington State University shows that the use of private prisons increases the number of people incarcerated yearly and their jail term. According to the paper, these facilities cause an increase of 178 inmates per million people annually on average.
Private detention facilities charge an average of $60 per inmate per day. If all the new inmates end up in private prisons, this earns the facilities about $10.6 million yearly. The same research unveiled a dramatic increase in the length of sentences, especially within states with low crime rates.
Some crimes give the prosecution and the judges more leeway in determining the proper sentencing for a defendant. This includes crimes like fraud, non-violent drug crimes, and property damage, just to mention a few. However, judges tend to impose maximum sentencing within states where private prisons can accommodate new inmates. The same harsh judgment is not set when dealing with violent crimes where the judges don’t enjoy much flexibility in sentencing.
One of the core reasons why private detention facilities result in more incarcerations and longer sentencing is corruption. Legislators and judges may be bent on writing laws with tougher penalties or impose harsher sentences with the intent to gather lucrative bribes from private prisons. When these facilities increase occupancy, they make better profits per year.
Unfortunately, the increase of private prisons impacts the fairness and efficacy of judicial outcomes. Such facilities and incarceration rates are undeniably related, and their upsurge is, in most cases, not a result of increased crime rates.
How Do Private Detention Facilities Fuel Corruption?
Capitalism runs America’s economy. Any situation can turn into a profit-making opportunity, and the prison system is not an exception. While many argue that this sector should be strictly off-limits, it rips millions from the taxpayer each year.
Private detention facilities are businesses, and just like any other venture, their core aim is to make money, not to rehabilitate wrongdoers. As long as the government keeps paying a stipend, these facilities provide housing for inmates at a theoretically lower cost than what is offered in public prisons. More inmates calculate into more profits for private detention facilities.
Even though private prisons only house a mere 8% of America’s inmate population, they can accommodate more prisoners if offered the right financial incentives. This creates a flawed prison system that beats the purpose of having “correctional” facilities. Even though prisons are also designed to punish wrongdoers, their primary goal is to rehabilitate inmates and enable them to make a smooth jump back into society after serving their time.
Private prisons thrive when more people are incarcerated. This gives them little incentive to want to rehabilitate inmates. Logically speaking, the rehabilitation of criminals cuts down their revenue stream.
A study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice on inmates freed in 2005 showed that about 83% of them were arrested again in less than nine years. The rate of recidivism in the U.S. is depressingly high, meaning the system is flawed and barely working as it should.
In states like Missouri that don’t have private prisons, the rate of recidivism is lower. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, the recidivism rate in the state is at 43.9%. This is almost half the countrywide average. While numerous factors impact the recidivism rates in different states, the lack of for-profit detention facilities helps considerably.
The bottom line is that privatizing prison systems is morally wrong. Such facilities profit from more convictions and higher recidivism rates. As such, their goal is not to make our neighborhoods safer, reduce crime rates and provide rehabilitation.
Is Detaining Immigrants Big Business For Private Prisons?
An increase in the inmate population led to the birth of privatized prisons in the 1980s. These facilities are today used by the government as default detention centers for illegal migrants. Even though private prisons have been used for decades to detain immigrants, their popularity exploded during the Trump administration.
The U.S. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) runs an expansive detention system. Within the first three years of Trump’s administration, about 24 new immigration detention centers were established, adding 17,000 new beds. Thanks to the political donations offered by privatized prisons, companies offering both private correctional facilities and detention centers have ripped record-setting revenue since 2017.
The government spends roughly $3 billion yearly to provide housing for about 50,000 immigrants. Most of these undocumented persons don’t have criminal records. Still, they are confined in facilities known for all sorts of abuse, including inadequate medical care, sexual assault, regular use of solitary confinement, and frequent hunger strikes.
Even as incarceration and recidivism rates drop, for-profit prisons still hope to remain afloat thanks to immigrant detention. Whether Biden’s executive action will lead to these facilities’ wreckage or lucrative future is something that only time will tell.
What the Future Looks Like For Private Prisons
Of the 50 states in America, 22 of them don’t house inmates in for-profit prisons. More states have been following suit, including Nevada and California, which have recently passed laws to cut business ties with private prisons and abolish their existence. In months to come, we expect more states to expand their laws to include abolishing privately-operated immigration detention centers.
A bill passed in October effectively prohibits private prisons from operating in California. Within the next four years, it is estimated that at least three private prisons in the state that house 1,400 inmates will stop operations. At the same time, at least four privatized detention facilities that accommodate around 4,000 immigrants will also close down.
The message California is sending is simple and straightforward: The state fervidly opposes the practice of making fortunes from Californians in custody. By abolishing private prisons and detention facilities, California advocates for the safety, welfare, and humane treatment of both inmates and illegal immigrants.
So, what does the future hold for private prisons?
Even as numerous states move towards abolishing private prisons, the laws in place have significant loopholes that may hinder the complete elimination of these facilities. According to the DSI (Director of Strategic Initiatives) for Sentencing Projects Kara Gotsch, facilities providing medical, vocational, educational, and other subsidiary services are exempted from abolishment.
The passage of legislation to eliminate private prisons may not necessarily bring them to a sudden halt. Most states are passing laws that only touch on centers providing custody and housing. For privatized jails and detention facilities to be faced out entirely, it is necessary to pass legislation with no exemptions. This is a measure that states like Nevada have already taken.
Even though nothing is certain, and we may still have some facilities operating in decades to come, the future may not be so bright for privatized prisons. After all, even banks have noticed the public’s scrutiny of the facilities and are quickly cutting financial partnership ties with companies allied with the detention industry.
Whether private prisons will continue to exist is a question that only time can answer. As this happens, it is also necessary for much to be done to streamline the criminal justice system. Currently, only 8% of the inmate population is housed in private prisons. The rest are detained in state and federal facilities that likewise don’t provide the best living conditions for inmates.
That said, the root problem of private, federal, and state prisons is mass incarceration. This is a matter that we must address for America to find lasting solutions. With so many people locked up, the public facilities in place can hardly provide the required accommodation and beds.
Apart from cutting off profit incentives from justice systems, it may also be necessary for the country to roll back on harsh crime legislation. Putting both measures in place will address the larger issue of incarceration in the country and speed up abolishing private prisons.
Find Legal Guidance on Prison Matters Near Me
Private prisons are businesses. As such, they will always put profit over rehabilitation and even the well-being of inmates. The very existence of these facilities and the immigration policies in place create structural incentives that lead to the increase of detained inmates and immigrants. As the profitability of private prisons increases, the lives of inmates and undocumented immigrants are endangered. Informed citizens are America’s democracy's best defense. For more information about these facilities or to get legal assistance in Los Angeles, CA for a loved one that is detained or incarcerated in a private prison, reach out to the Law Office Of Sara L. Caplan. Call us at 310-550-5877 for a free consultation.