Private prisons create more  problems than public ones

By ERIC MOUNT

Guest columnist

The government shrinkage movement that resurged in the 1980s has had as one of its beneficiaries the private prison industry.

Sentencing policies that included mandatory minimums and three strikes laws; and mass incarceration caused by the War on Drugs helped keep the U.S. prison population the world’s largest. Building more prisons played better with taxpayers who wanted to control crime if private corporations eased the burden.

As leaders in both parties began to question some of the harsh and short-sighted sentencing policies and the packing of prisons with non-violent drug offenders (disproportionately people of color using street drugs), the prospects of the private prison industry took a hit.

In August 2016, when the Obama administration’s deputy attorney general Sally Yates announced that the federal government would phase out contracts with privately run facilities used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, share prices of prison companies sharply declined. (Facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were not covered by the order.)

The election of President Trump, with his emphasis on immigration enforcement, brought an immediate reversal of the downward stock trend. The response anticipated the replacement of a “catch and release” policy with undocumented persons attempting to enter the country in favor of detention awaiting trial.

Candidate Trump had called the nation’s prison system a “disaster” and said, “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.”

The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general brought a continued upward climb in anticipation of his reversal of the Yates order, which he delivered. By the end of February, stocks of the GEO Group and CoreCivic, two of the largest private prison companies, were up more than 100 percent since Election Day.

Private prison companies apparently knew a good thing when they saw it. They raised $100 million for the inauguration of President Trump. GEO Group provided $250,000 of the total, and a subsidiary contributed $22 million to a super-PAC to help the Trump election campaign.

It should be noted that officials from both GEO and CoreCivic have stated that their companies do not push policies that would increase prison populations or advocate for or against any specific criminal justice, sentencing or immigration policy. Instead, they promote public-private partnerships. It is still the case, however, that their business model is built on maximizing the size of the prison population and the size of the profit. After all, isn’t that just good business?

So, is there a problem? And if there is, what is it?

There are at least two problems.

The first is the track record of private prisons. Any criticism of the industry needs to acknowledge that the governmental system has plenty of problems. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons got a thumb in the eye in April for paying huge bonuses in the last three years to top administrators and wardens despite persistent overcrowding, subpar medical care, chronic staff shortages and an ugly sexual harassment lawsuit against one of its largest institutions.

Still, the overall performance of private prisons suffers by comparison with the government institutions. The for-profit prisons do not even save the taxpayers money, especially if account is taken of hidden costs such as the billions of dollars in public subsidies that have gone to the private prison industry.

There are numerous reports of corruption, abuse and underpaid and unmonitored guards acting with impunity. When Yates issued her order, she included a memo detailing the poorer performance of private prisons by most key measures. For example, in safety and security of staff members and level of rehabilitative services such as educational programs and job training, they simply do not measure up. These services are not good for the balance sheet.

There is, however,  an even more basic issue than practicality. Are there not certain functions for the public good and certain protections of our rights and freedoms that should not be delegated to for-profit organizations or auctioned off to the lowest bidder?

Would we want to outsource our court system? Should our defense be assured by surrogates?  The criminal justice system supposedly aims not only at the protection of our citizenry but at the rehabilitation and restoration of those who break our laws and do us harm.

How long someone remains in prison should not be decided by an organization that has a stake in keeping the maximum number of people locked up for the maximum length of time. And should how much is spent on education and therapy be determined by the low bidder?  

Criminal justice is not the only public good that should be the responsibility of government at its various levels, but surely it belongs among those functions to be discharged, monitored and paid for by the governmental representatives of society as a whole.