Private Prisons: big, scary business

An examination
by Chris Hibbard


“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

Private Prisons: an examination of privatized corrections

Over the past 20 years, North America has been witness to a startling new trend – the privatization of correctional system. While this trend may be seen as new, private prisons themselves are not. In the mid-1800s, state legislatures awarded contracts to private entrepreneurs to operate and manage state prisons in Louisiana and New York, including the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility, to this day a warehouse for some of society’s worst and most hardened criminals. Institutions like these became the model for entire sections of the nation in which privatized prisons were the norm later in the century. Supposedly to turn a profit for the state or at least pay for themselves, the inmates in these prisons were leased or contracted out by state legislation as a labour force to private companies. In some cases such as Texas however, the correctional system itself was turned over wholesale to private interests, in exchange for their promises that they would control and restrain inmates at no cost to the state.

This resulted in a number of issues, the biggest one being that labourers and businesses complained that this unpaid convict labor constituted unfair competition. Prisoner abuse, malnourishment, overwork and overcrowding were other issue that concerned reformers, but were unimportant to most in-office officials and politicians. Eventually public pressure impelled state and federal governments to regulate the private sector, so much so that by the turn of the century, states were forced to take direct responsibility for prisons and prisoners, thus bringing about the end of the first era of private prisons. What is the motivation then for bringing a ‘dead’ issue back to the table?

In Canada, two main concerns are the deterioration of aging public prisons and the growing trend towards over-incarceration. This latter trend has been attributed by scholars to several factors including: perceived increases in crime, heightened fear of victimization, and increased enforcement of drug offences, domestic abuse and sex offences. Basically, our existing prisons are overcrowded and old and provincial and federal governments have to choose to either build new facilities, replace and repair existing facilities, or look to the private sector.

It is estimated that Canada’s total prison population is close to 300,000 – minimum, medium, and maximum security. In the United States alone there are over 1.2 million prisoners incarcerated at any given time. North American institutions, especially at the Federal or Maximum Security levels, sometimes house up to five inmates per cell in extreme circumstances, with three being the norm and ‘double bunking’ very common.

These huge numbers of prisoners are the result of new legislations meant to ‘crack down on crime’ so to speak, through laws that enforce policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike life sentences are one major reason that privatized prisons are back in our society in a big way. The War on Drugs, War on Terror, and unlabeled War on Immigration are surely significant factors as well. But other modern reasons for private prisons include notions of corporate greed (for lack of a better term) leading to ‘work farms’ and a subsequent dramatic increase in imprisonment for non-violent offences.

The prospect of these privatized prisons raises difficult and disturbing questions from ethical, legal and practical perspectives. Those in favour of privatized prisons claim that the private sector can operate prisons more efficiently and for less money. They argue that correctional facilities in the public sector are money-sucking failures, and since there are no ‘better’ solutions on the table, privatizing is surely the way to go. This is especially interesting when one considers that while the statistics show that incarceration rates have increased substantially in the last quarter century, the actual crime rates themselves have not kept up.

What is clear is this. In the U.S., the numbers of African-American and Latino offenders are staggering, in their proportion to Caucasians. In Canada, the same can be said for their aboriginal peoples, including the Métis. Of course, one result of more prisoners in less prison space is that budgets for corrections have become stretched rather thin. As one example, in California alone, North America’s largest state prison system, the budget for corrections increased 700% during the 1980’s to a whopping 2.1 billion dollars, while the system was still operating at almost twice its own capacity. These huge costs that have taken us down a path which allows for private prisons to seem like a feasible option.

Many opponents to privatized prisons argue that it is not the prisons that are the problem – rather it is the criminal justice system itself that is flawed and failing, leading to an unacceptable level or detainees and subsequent inflated costs. The obvious results of this broken system are that prison construction programs are then deemed necessary. While privatization is not limited to corrections, see policing and courts as well, it is the correctional system that receives the most attention, for the effects of the flaws are most apparent in such ‘closed’ environments.

There are four broad categories of privatization when it comes to corrections. The first is private financing and construction. This involves the use of private capital and or industry to fund and build prisons that the government will then operate. This may be achieved through a rental agreement, in which the government pays rent to the prison facility owners, or through a lease-type agreement, in which the government pays rent so to speak, until it eventually owns the facility.

The second type of privatization involves the use of inmate labour for private purposes. The inmates receive daily pay for their labour while incarcerated, and the goods and services that they produce are then sold to the public. This type of privatization is visible in Canada in the organization of CORCAN, a rehabilitation program of the Correctional Service of Canada. CORCAN is mandated to provide employment training and employability skills to offenders at the federal level, with the support of the Government of Canada and its social policy. CORCAN operates in 38 sites across Canada, with five business lines: agriculture, textiles, manufacturing, construction, maintenance and services. These ‘shops’ as they are referred to by officials involved, are said to be operation in as businesslike a manner as possible, given their institutional settings.

The third type of privatization involves the use of inmate labour that is contracted out for particular purposes, including food services, mental and medical health services, education, halfway houses and alcohol and drug treatment programs. In Canada, non-profit groups such as the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies provide programs for offenders, both in the community as parolees or ex-convicts and those still incarcerated.

The fourth and final type of privatization is private prison management. This involves the management of public or private prison facilities by the private sector. This is the most debated and controversial category, in which most of the legal and philosophical questions emerge. Some of these questions include: Is it proper for imprisonment to be administered by anyone other than government officials and employees? Is a ‘profit motive’ compatible with justice or will the private sector be more interested in making money that in dispensing justice? Who retains the authority and if it is the government, how do they maintain control over prisoner rights and well-being? Do they monitor the private contractors’ actions and activities, and if so, how well?

No matter which category is being talked about, there always seems to be an issue of cost involved. Incarceration, especially of the long-term variety, is very expensive, and in many regards, with little to no return on the investment so to speak. It can be argued that once one has broken the law, they have essentially forfeited their role in society and have nothing more to give – yet they are kept alive like animals in a zoo. This has been the most common source of debate both in favour of, and in opposition to, the privatization of prisons.

Those in favour suggest that private prisons alleviate overcrowding and cost increases to the government which then trickle down to the taxpayer. But at the same time, opponents to privatization predict that any cost savings resulting from privatization will be short term only, and are likely to rarely (if ever) make their way back to the taxpayer. An extremist view would predict the money staying in the private sector, the corporation and it’s employees, whether this is through favoritism, misappropriation, or sheer corruption. Others have argued that privatized prisons are self-perpetuating, and would require a steady number of inmates in order to function; essentially needing prisoners to take care of prisoners, thereby reducing the chances of changes to the justice system and a convicted person’s parole being granted.

Other arguments against privatization are these: Private contracting adds a profit margin to the basic costs, thereby making incarceration actually more expensive. Private contracting can create its own hidden costs, including costs of contracting, initiating, negotiating, managing and monitoring – things that may not be in the initial contract but would ‘naturally’ arrive on the doorstep of the government. In this same way, privatization could lead to other costs such as unemployment insurance, termination payouts, and union fees – stranger things have happened. As with many other branches of the private sector, there is also the possibility of ‘lowballing’, underbidding each other to win the contract, only to subsequently raise their prices in subsequent renewals of said contract after services have been established.

Finally, there is the notion that since private prisons would tend to lean toward increased incarceration (maximizing efficiency and output), opponents to privatization have said that in the future, alternatives to incarceration would not likely be promoted, effectively putting an end to other possible measures instead of automatic incarceration. This is seen as a ‘social cost’ that should be considered as important as any ‘business cost’ would be.

There are theoretical arguments both in favour of and in opposition to privatized prisons. After all, this is not a simple issue. What do we do with our prisoners once they are imprisoned? Should we pamper them? Treat them humanely? Or treat them like the ‘animals’ they are? Should we use them, putting them to work to make our lives a little bit easier? If so, what do we pay them, if we pay them anything? If we do, who is in charge of making sure they are paid fairly, and that the funds are not misappropriated?

Perhaps we should merely forget about them, locking them up and throwing away the key, as has been the standard practice for the last 40 years? No matter what we choose, the privatization of corrections is inarguably a very slippery slope. If we rely on our prisoners as cheap labour, we will always need more prisoners. A day may come on which policy changes, and prison labour will be effectively recruited. “Prisoners wanted – good benefits, free room and board – apply within.”

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

One Response to “Private Prisons: big, scary business”

  1. I didn’t know they had these. I suppose it makes sense, but it sounds a little like the government is throwing these people away. Handing them over to businesses sounds like entrusting human beings to whoever will take hem, just to save money and regardless of the way they’ll be treated.

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