Why the U.S. must move away from private for-profit prisons
Clint Smith writes in the New Yorker:
People who have spent time in prison say that it is difficult to adequately convey what it means to have someone else in full control of your movements—when you eat, when you sleep, where you go, and how you get there. But when control is combined with a profit-making business model, it takes on a different character.
The absurdity of privatizing prisons, institutions whose purpose is to rehabilitate, so that their economic motivations no longer match up with their social missions, has for years been at the forefront of conversations regarding criminal-justice reform. During the Democratic Presidential primaries, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders promised to end the use of private prisons if elected. Then, last week, the Justice Department announced its plans to phase out their use in the federal system. The government had concluded, as Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a memo to federal officials, that these prisons, contrary to the private-prison industry’s claims, “do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
The Justice Department’s decision will directly affect only thirteen federal facilities, which, taken together, house approximately twenty-two thousand of the country’s hundred and ninety-three thousand federal prisoners. But those numbers do not fully reflect the influence that private prisons have had on the broader criminal-justice system. After the private sector first entered the world of incarceration, in 1983, a handful of companies quickly began to exert a disproportionate amount of power in shaping the American prison landscape. Private-prison companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying legislators in state capitals and in Washington, D.C. As Adam Gopnik reported in this magazine, in 2012, Corrections Corporations of America (C.C.A.), the largest for-profit prison company in the United States, has said explicitly that changes to drug laws and sentencing, as well as immigration reform, would hurt its business. A 2005 annual report from C.C.A. states:
Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
The distorted incentives of the for-profit prison industry have even managed to find bright sides to undisputed social problems like unemployment. In 2008, one industry executive wrote a letter to shareholders saying that he believed the demand for prison beds would increase because people being released at the time would have a more difficult time finding jobs as a result of the recession, thus increasing their likelihood of ending up back in prison. The higher the recidivism rates, the more beds that are filled, and the more beds that are filled, the better for a for-profit prison. That said, not all private prisons have to worry about recidivism rates: some of their contracts at the state level guarantee them a certain number of prisoners. Four years ago, Harley Lappin, the chief corrections officer of C.C.A. and the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, offered states a deal: the company would buy state prisons (the money could help plug state budgets) in exchange for twenty-year contracts and guaranteed ninety-per-cent occupancy. A 2013 analysis by the privatization watchdog In the Public Interest found that two-thirds of private-prison contracts in the country include occupancy guarantees and stipulations that taxpayers cover the cost of any empty beds.
The U.S. prison system, over all, disproportionately affects black and brown people, but people of color are overrepresented to a greater degree in private prisons. Chris Petrella, a doctoral candidate in African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has written that this overrepresentation can be directly attributed to contractual provisions that “implicitly exempt private prison companies from housing certain types of individuals whose health care and staffing costs disproportionately attenuate profit margins. Health and therefore age tends to serve as a proxy for race without any explicit reference to it.” For example, black males between the ages of eighteen and nineteen are ten times more likely to be in state or federal prison than white males of the same age, and, because these young people tend to be healthier than their older counterparts, they are more likely to be incarcerated in a for-profit prison. Older prisoners are more expensive for prisons to house because they tend to require more health care over time. According to Petrella, private prisons attempt to keep older and sicker prisoners out, because the more they have to spend on an elderly prisoner’s health care, the more it cuts into their profit margin per inmate.
For-profit institutions also tend to be more violent and to provide fewer opportunities to prisoners for education and rehabilitative treatment. For years, activists have been asking a basic question: If getting an education while incarcerated has been proved to reduce recidivism rates, then what incentive does an institution that makes its money keeping people in prison have to provide any sort of educational programming? The private-prison company’s ultimate responsibility is not to the imprisoned, or even to the non-imprisoned—it is to the shareholder.
Of course, even in government-run prisons, private companies operate in a number of capacities. . .