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The Problem with Private Prisons

The existence of private prisons has become, in recent years, a focal point of controversy in the United States. Proponents stress that privately owned prisons operate with efficiencies not present in the U.S. government’s vast bureaucracy and due to those efficiencies, have lower costs.

However, when examined closely, the benefits that proponents point to seem to evaporate quite rapidly.

First, the very concept of private prisons carries a disturbing incentive to both ensure criminal sentencing remains harsh while ensuring that the prison population remains high. Though there is little evidence of companies in the prison industry giving money directly for this purpose, there is no lack of funds sent directly to members of both political parties.

It is difficult to believe that vast amounts of money sent to United States representatives has no effect on whether they vote a certain way regarding criminal laws. Senator John McCain, House Speaker John Boehner and Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist received $71,000, $63,000 and $58,500 respectively from companies running private prisons.

Altogether, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The GEO Group and Management Training Corporation (MTC) have spent $45 million on campaign donations and lobbying.

There is also the issue of transparency. As in, many private prisons are not subject to various transparency laws that state institutions adhere to.

Recently in Vermont, the Human Rights Defense Center submitted an open records request to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and was stonewalled. CCA argued that since it is a private company, it did not have to obey Vermont’s transparency laws. However, a Vermont judge later ordered CCA to open their records due to the fact they are providing a public function.

Furthermore, though proponents argue that privatizing prisons can be a cost saving measure for budget strapped states, Arizona serves as a prime example that the cost savings promised by these prisons are seldom realized. Arizona law demands that private prisons seek cost saving measures, but state data shows that inmates in privatized prisons cost up to $1,600 more per year as compared to state prisons.

As a result, a research team at the University of Utah concluded that the cost savings promised from the use of private prisons seems minimal.

Again in Arizona, Management Training Corp required that prison beds remain at 97% capacity otherwise they would fine the state of Arizona for empty beds. When the prison capacity eventually dipped below 97%, MTC sent a bill to the Arizona state government.

After the state refused to pay the bill, MTC sued. A settlement was eventually reached, a consequence of which was the billing of Arizona tax payers for $3 million dollars.

While these companies claim that they do not participate in lobbying for harsher criminal laws, it is hard to image that the money sent to U.S. Congressmen does not inherently possess that request. It is also irresponsible for these private institutions to operate outside the expectation of the transparency expected of public institutions. As the judge in Vermont stated, these prisons conduct a public function.

This is not to condemn privatization as a whole, however. The majority of private companies operate more efficiently than government bureaucracy, but the very nature of incarceration demands that it remains in the hands of the state.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: The Economist, CBS, Forbes, The Huffington Post
Photo: American Friends Service Committee