Stop Privatizing Prisons
The United States currently incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on earth. In an attempt to contain costs involved in operating prisons, some states have resorted to contracting out the services of for-profit companies to run prisons for them. Adding a profit motive to the operation of prisons at taxpayer expense is detrimental to the purposes of having a criminal justice system in a free society such as ours purports to be. What may seem like a good short-term fix to a very real fiscal difficulty may become a longer-term fiscal problem, as well as a moral dilemma for our society.
If crime rates fall or laws are changed to require fewer people to be housed in prisons as punishment for socially unacceptable behavior, there is less need for them overall. Private prison companies, however, know that closing prisons or administering them for a declining prison population could easily negatively affect their bottom line. In contracting with states, therefore, they strike deals that include clauses that guarantee high prison occupancy rates, or at least that they be paid as if those high rates existed.This means that they get paid for their services even if prison occupancy goes down. In other words, tax payers are being billed for services that may no longer be necessary. The contracts often run for years.
Such contracts obviously run counter to our judicial philosophy on several levels. Would we hire a fire department of a size too large for the needs of the community, or keep it at the same level of employment if the needs of the community no longer required it? The incentive to reduce the number of inmates is severely curtailed under such an arrangement. If the judicial and corrections functions do their jobs properly, fewer people should eventually require incarceration for shorter periods as time progresses. Giving such incentive to keep the beds occupied seems counterproductive. Might as well get our money’s worth from the private company, right? Only that isn’t fair to either the inmates or the taxpayers funding the prisons.
Instead of making incarceration of human beings profitable for private companies at the expense of both the inmates and society as a whole, should the government not maintain those prisons as stewards of both the judicial system and the common purse? After all, it is more economical to the taxpayers not to pour ever larger amounts of money into prisons which would obviously be better spent educating our youth or some other more productive enterprise. Shouldn’t we be seeking more productive ways of dealing with “criminal” behavior than merely housing people and keeping them from harming further the general population (if they even did so in the first place)? Long mandatory sentences for victimless crimes and three strikes laws sentencing repeat offenders to long terms for minor offenses are all great in the eyes of the private prison companies. We need to examine why this country finds it necessary to incarcerate so many more of our citizens than other countries do.
Agreeing to terms in contracts with private prison companies that ensures their profitability at the expense of both inmates and the taxpayers is simply bad faith bargaining. How is it that they are able to operate these prisons more efficiently than the government does? What corners do they cut to achieve the same goals AND still make a profit? Do they skimp on the welfare of the inmates? Do they pay lower wages to their employees and give fewer benefits? Is this a mechanism by which the government is seeking to escape some of the responsibility it has long held in regard to the judicial system and allow others to take care of the details more cheaply and with less public scrutiny?
A local example pertaining to a privately-run juvenile detention facility comes to mind. A few years ago, it was revealed that the facility and a local real estate developer were actually paying kickbacks to local judges to increase occupancy of the facility. Two judges now reside in correctional facilities themselves for their part in the scheme. Juveniles had their constitutional legal rights violated and were sentenced to serve time in that facility that was not deserved, so that they could supplement the income of these judges and make the facility profitable at their expense and that of the taxpayers. Not all private prison situations are so blatantly illegal, but how many questionable practices are in place that most of the public would not find abhorrent were they to become common knowledge?
Why should people be allowed to make a profit from imprisoning people? I’m not talking about the guards and other employees who are doing work and getting paid for it (hopefully at a living wage, with good benefits). They would often possibly be doing the same jobs for the government in a prison that was not privatized. They also don’t have any say in who is incarcerated and why. We should be striving to lessen the need for prisons, not trying to increase it and make incarceration an ever growing part of our economy. Like militarism, making our society and economy more dependent on incarcerating people who could otherwise become more productive members of society, is a trap that only serves the interests of a few at the expense of the many.
Private prison companies seek to expand as much as possible, while our society would be far better served rehabilitating criminals or treating them for addictions, mental illnesses and other factors that have made them come to the attention of the judicial system to begin with. Many prisoners would be better served by rehabilitation centers or treatment facilities for mental illnesses that go untreated in prisons.Turning the country into a nation comprised to an ever increasing degree of prisons, their inmates and their keepers, is no more worthy a goal than turning it into an armed camp composed of soldiers and people making the tools of war for them to annihilate each other with.
In terms of saving jobs in a declining market for those working in the prison industry, that should be a happy task, as it should be for creating jobs for those no longer needed to produce armaments and missiles or trained in the methods of mass destruction. Surely the money wasted creating profits for prison companies would be more wisely spent on public education or other programs designed to eliminate or severely curtail the need for prisons. Privatizing prisons, schools and other institutions meant to serve society as a whole and all of its members is just another method of capitalizing on the misfortune of the many to enrich the already powerful. The references below bear this out.
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