Privatization of prisons and the demise of criminal justice

Jail CellAmericans desire a criminal justice system that promotes safety, upholds fairness, and operates cost-effectively. However, the privatization of prisons obstructs the realization of these three tenets. A report released earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reveals the destructive practices of for-profit prisons.

Since the inception of the “war on drugs,” the prison population in the US has skyrocketed, particularly with the implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing, truth in sentencing, and three strikes laws. While many politicians desire to appear “tough on crime,” in actuality, these policies weaken communities and infringe on basic liberties.

Between 1970 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the United States grew by 700%. Today, the United States incarcerates approximately 2.3 million people. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has only 5% of the world’s populatin [sic] but a full 25% of its prisoners.

As the report notes, the explosive rate of incarceration over the last few decades coincides with a growing dependence on the privatized prison industry. Private prisons did not exist in America at the beginning of the 1980s, but since their establishment, incarceration in these facilities has increased by 1600%.

This exponential increase has lined the pockets of many prison corporations, which has encouraged them to support legislation that is likely to increase the prison population. In fact, the Corrections Corporations of America has been a longtime supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that acquaints state legislators with corporate powers to write model legislation, which the legislators take back home and introduce. ALEC has written dozens of model bills promoting tough-on-crime policies and requiring the use of private institutions.

Immigration detention is yet another money-making opportunity on which prison corporations have certainly capitalized. One group suggests that privatized prisons house around 50 percent of all immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ALEC has also been involved in tightening immigration laws, like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which requires people to provide documentation of their lawful presence in the country and would likely increase the number of immigrants detained.

Privatization often emerges under the guise of cost-effectiveness, but as the report uncovers, research indicates that private prisons do not save money and may actually cost more than government-run institutions. Most concerning is the incentive for private prisons to cut costs on safety and conditions. Several studies suggest that more violence occurs in private prisons, including both inmate-on-inmate incidents and altercations between staff and inmates. Also, private prisons present alarming cases of unsafe conditions, including sexual assaults of inmates by staff. Since prison corporations have little incentive to reduce future crime, private prisons often neglect to offer adequate rehabilitation programs. One study finds that inmates of private prisons have a higher rate of recidivism.

Given the evidence that for-profit prisons do more harm than good, we should thoroughly investigate their practices and seriously reconsider how much influence the prison industry has on our lawmaking process.

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