The Perils of Prison Privatization

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Oct. 17, 2012, 11:23 p.m.

Privatization of traditionally public services, like national defense and education, is becoming ever more common in America. Privatization is often relatively harmless: Outsourcing highway maintenance to private firms, for instance, can help balance budgets and trim down bloated administrations. Privatization may even be beneficial: Perhaps private schools are on the whole detrimental to society, but they can at least design curricula that would be unthinkable in their public counterparts. In other instances, though, privatization can harm our most fundamental rights.

Consider, for instance, the private prison industry, which has grown by 350 percent in the last 15 years. Private prisons seem fine in theory: They contract with state and federal governments to receive a daily or monthly rate for each prisoner, thereby freeing government from the responsibility of managing burdensome prisons and their populations.

In practice, however, the system is highly flawed. First and foremost, private prisons do not profit from the quality of their service. Instead, they profit from how many beds they can fill. To increase revenues and decrease costs, then, private prisons will generally sacrifice the quality of the prison at the expense of those inside. There is no incentive to offer rehabilitation services; in fact, the private prison is better off when released prisoners find their way back. As one federal prison guard wrote in the comment section of a New York Times article, “I meet with virtually every new inmate who arrives. I can always tell which ones came from private, for-profit prisons, because they are so happy to be here that they are practically kissing the ground.”

The problems do not end there. Some officials, most notably former Tennessee Governor and current Senator Lamar Alexander, accrue sizeable financial gains by investing in prison corporations while in office. Since these prisons’ revenues are tied to the number of prisoners they house, it means pushing for harsher laws and sentencing, regardless of whether or not these are beneficial to society. Because these corporations can – thanks to the Citizens United decision – spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, politicians and public officials will often give weight to their demands.

Sometimes there is even blatant corruption. In 2011, two Pennsylvania judges were convicted of accepting almost $3 million in kickbacks from two privately-run juvenile detention centers. In exchange, they closed down the existing public facility and sent approximately 4,000 children to the two private detention centers. In about 30 percent of these cases, the children did not have a lawyer present and were not advised of their right to counsel. Is that justice?

Given the problems already present in our prison system – overcrowding, high rates of recidivism, sentencing disparities based on race or ethnicity, nonviolent offenders serving life sentences and many others – we should not open the door for more injustices to occur. The privatization of prisons does exactly that by sacrificing the fundamental rights of our citizenry in the name of profit and economic efficiency.

Think privatization has gone too far? Email Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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