The mounting privatization of prisons continues to monetize incarceration which in turn disincentivizes the rehabilitation process. Its cooperation with a justice system that targets certain colors and classes of criminals has only perpetuated crime and poverty, often and disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities. Unfortunately, for those who craft pro-incarceration policy; spending up to $55k a year to imprison the victims of a dilapidated and recovering socio-economic system seems more reasonable than spending a considerably small fraction of that expenditure educating them. Too many of America’s youth are not given the benefit of quality education, the results of which deserve a much longer academic discussion; however, for purpose of this discussion, we should consider (to the extent that we can) the impact that inadequate education has on the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are not given the tools to conquer academic competencies are deprived from the dreams a fully-equipped mind is capable of unraveling. American policy continues to rationalize the lack of resources available to American youth in our education system while fortifying the sustainability of an industry that profits off of the conscious neglect of our most vulnerable. The privatization of prisons has been an incremental misstep in the prioritization of the health and safety of the American public.
The word ‘private’ is somewhat cryptic. The term is often positively connoted in political discussions as alluding to ‘freedom’. Anything that is public is seen as being subject to the tyranny of big government over-regulation. While anything that is private is seen as contributing to economic opportunity with boundless reach. The word ‘private’ should be demystified as meaning one thing. This one thing is the reason lobbyists spend unimaginable amounts of money petitioning for it. It is the reason investors hedge their bets on an industry they have no remote passion for. It is why political action committees are overflowing with campaign payments to politicians for services rendered (submitting and voting yes on legislation written by the industries that employ them). The word private simply means for profit. It means the primary existence of that business or industry, is to make money, and then to make more of it.
Profiting, of course, is not always a bad thing. It is often a good thing. The question one must ask when determining if privatization is the best course to be taken is if the business or industry in question fulfills a moral obligation to society. If the answer is yes, the next question must be, if that ethical responsibility is at risk of compromise and if so, is it worth it? What is the potential impact of compromise? Is it worth it? Profiting is carnal and instinctive. The desire for it, if left undisciplined, will usurp and destroy the necessary to achieve the unnecessary. Valuating our humanity implies we lack it, and is the very reason we lose it.
Even though at the root of its cause, the abject impact of private prisons on convicted criminals is clearly apparent. The justification of such, at the surface, illuminates with the gilded glow of good intentions. The privatization of any government regulated complex is often considered a win by those who champion the great concern of Washington’s overreach and excessive involvement in public life. “Small government” is the mantra of conservative thought leaders who argue against the allocation of excessive federal involvement on programs that could if integrated into the private sector, significantly reduce the overall cost of maintenance. The leading assertion that private prison lobbyists and advocates make in their defense of the $70 billion industry is that it is cost effective.
Capitalism, the self-ascribed protagonist of western civilization in the war of economic philosophies, hinges on the idea that a free market introduces competition, where cost deflates under the weight of options. The hope is that when factoring in the overhead costs of everything from infrastructure and facility maintenance to employee pensions and prisoner healthcare, private prisons may offer taxpayers significant savings.
What We Know
While Americans only make up a mere 5% of the world’s population, we account for a staggering 25% of the world’s prison population. An obvious assumption is that we are not doing enough to prevent jailable crimes or/and we are enabling a system that relies too heavily on incarceration. The cost of imprisonment has amassed considerably, inciting a government-interest in offloading a number of inmates (20% of federal and 6% of state) into a cost-benefit experiment. From 1990 to 2009 private prisons incarcerations were allowed in 33 states and increased by 1600% over that period. These prisons increase their per-day fees for prisoners by 14% a year and overcrowd to maximize their profits.
The depth of depravity, for the sake of prison profits, most extensively occurs from the exchange of human life for actual dollars. Imprisonment is not always exchanged for justice or safety, but at times for mere dollars. Two infamous judges have already been convicted in the “Kids for Cash Scandal” in which they accepted $2.6 million in bribes from private prisons in exchange for convicting 5,000 children (mostly minority) as adults for commonly petty non-violent crimes. In present-day America, children have been sold into captivity by the thousands because a system with an ethical obligation was infected with the right to exist for profit. What moral decay, for a child to be seen as a stipend, rather than a son or daughter in need of investment into their development and affirmation of their societal significance. If even those most vulnerable in our society are at risk of state-sponsored exploitation, how much more are their fathers and mothers at risk? Even the standard bearers for morality who carry the burden of upholding the rule of law, which underpins our liberty, have been willing to sell the same American dream of freedom, privatization promises to preserve.
Objective curiosity may unveil some truth within the following scenario. If an industry requires investors and is accountable to shareholders who demand a competitive return on their investment; why would that industry concern itself with anything that impedes its profitability? The argument has been that private prisons save taxpayers money, but how can this be true if the industry focus is on making money and maximizing its profits?
A Litmus Test
The prison system should exist for two primary reasons. The first, to ensure that the small percentage of criminals whose unconscionable crimes pose a threat to society remain removed from public life with the opportunity to receive medical treatment and find absolution within the bounds of their confinement. Second, to ascertain the minimum amount of time necessary to both rehabilitate conscionable offenders who can be trusted with reintegration while also discouraging law-abiding citizens from criminal behavior with the consequences of those crimes. Certain prerequisites must exist within a litmus test to determine if this is possible within an industry that first seeks to profit.
- What are the metrics for inmate success within this system and how are they measured? Do these metrics include goals for rehabilitation, minimal prison retention, and low rates of repeat offenders?
- Does the industry benefit or hurt when the aforementioned goals are accomplished?
- What accountability systems exist and what actions can they take to improve prisons with poor performing metrics?
- Who determines acceptable living conditions and ensures conformity?
- If a private-prison becomes unprofitable, wherein lies the public’s responsibility?
When a man commits a crime, the following actions occur: his arrest, his trial, his conviction, his imprisonment, and his release. By what logic should only one of those steps be private? What makes it more acceptable, for what is often the most impacting of those actions (when considering the physical and psychological impact), to be private?
If a man must be reduced to his economic potential, why not invest in his earning potential? While the government concerns itself with how much they may save, and prisons concern themselves with how much they can make; few concern themselves with the missed opportunities for these individuals to give back to the communities they have disparaged, through community service and tax revenues from legitimate work. Savings have not been evidenced, and advocates for private prisons have not encouraged comparative or regression analysis despite arguments suggesting this industry has led to government over-spending. The same economic theory that introduces competition driving down costs also incites uninhibited monopolization which crushes competition driving up costs; an extraordinary paradox. Too many inmates are being stalled in a purposefully congested system and those who are released are predisposed for failure. The argument is that these private prison contracts can be canceled; however, dependence on private prisons makes it difficult to withdraw inmates and displace them elsewhere. Reorganization is expensive and federal prisons have already overcrowded.
While this opinion piece focuses primarily on the argument against private prisons, there are many other issues that contribute to our flawed prison system. There are laws (such as the criminalization of marijuana) and a lack of laws (such as those that prevent biased sentencing) that flood our prisons with people and unnecessary laws that make effective reintegration nearly impossible. Nearly half of all prison inmates are made up of drug offenders, 16% of which it is their most serious offense. While most studies suggest that you are no more likely to do drugs based on race, black and minority members are many times more likely to be imprisoned for the same drug-related crimes their major counterparts are often not imprisoned for. Once these prisoners are reintegrated, it is nearly impossible for even those who should have arguably never been imprisoned to qualify for jobs and housing. Other laws prevent them from acquiring the student aide needed to pursue higher education, only increasing the rates of recidivism.
There must be a change. As major elections approach, I offer caution concerning local, state, and federal candidates who neither acknowledge or offer a sincere commitment to improving our prison system. We must elect those with solutions and hold them accountable.