For-profit businesses try to make as much money as they can. Profit is how they, and the rest of society, measure value creation and the overall success of their company.
This all makes reasonable sense, until one learns about for-profit prisons. Typically, a country’s goal is to decrease its incarceration rate; however, for-profit prisons want to increase revenue, which they accomplish by increasing the incarceration rate. This contradiction is what we call the “Prison-Industrial Complex” or, in more informal terms, absolute baloney.The prison population rate of the United States, per 100,000 of the national population, is 698. In a study by the Institute of Criminal Policy Research rating the highest to lowest prison population rates in the world, the US ranked second— above the Russian Federation, Rwanda, and El Salvador. Seychelles was the only country who beat out America with a rate of 799 per 100,000. An underestimated reason why the US has a prison population total of a whopping 2,217,000 is this aforementioned prison-industrial complex.
Defining For-Profit Prisons.
A for-profit private prison is a facility managed by a for-profit organization through a public-private partnership with a government contract. Private prison companies contract with federal and state governments to either take over management of a state-run facility or to house people in a privately constructed prison. Private prisons generally charge a daily rate per person incarcerated to cover investment, operating costs, and turn a profit. (Justice Policy, Gaming the System)
The Prison-Industrial Complex.
The prison-industrial complex refers to a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that “encourage increased spending and enforcement of imprisonment, regardless of the actual need” (Schlosser 1998). This is not a government secret or some wacky conspiracy theory. Both liberals and conservatives use it to gain votes for (re)election in poor communities around the US, where the prison industry is vital to economic development. Is it what’s best for criminals and at-risk youth? No. Is it what’s best for the US as a whole? No. Does it happen? Absolutely.
“At a time when many policymakers are looking at criminal and juvenile justice reforms that would safely shrink the size of our prison population, the existence of private prison companies creates a countervailing interest in preserving the current approach to criminal justice and increasing the use of incarceration” — Justice Policy Institute, Gaming the System
As of Dec. 31 2009, approximately 129,000 people were held in American privately managed correctional facilities. Since 2000 the number of people held in private prisons has leapfrogged by 120 percent for federal private prisons and by 33 percent for private state facilities. When compared to the 16 percent by which both public and private prison intake has increased, it is clear that private prisons have skyrocketed in the past decade.
The two largest private prisons are Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group. Combined, their revenue in 2010 was over $2.9 billion. In order to create more of a market for their product (i.e. imprison more individuals), both businesses advocate for pro-incarceration policies in three ways:
- Lobbying. Like many other businesses, private prisons employ lobbying firms to represent their interests in Congress and state legislature. Because private prisons increase their revenue by putting more people in jail, lobbying efforts go to pro-incarceration bills and increased law enforcement.
- Direct Campaign Contributions. Establishing important business ties with politicians is an important business strategy for private prisons. As the graphic below elicits, campaign contributions (unofficially tied to promises to block prison-alleviation policies) have been steadily on the rise.
- Relationships & Associations. Profits of private prisons almost completely depend on public policies and funding. For this reason,the relationships such companies make with government officials are dominant in the industry and extremely dangerous to the democratic values of the US. To exemplify the predominance, the of the founder of CCA, Tom Beasley, is a former Tennessee government official. His connections in politics have made his corporation one of the biggest in the private prison industry.
A Pro Among Many Cons.
The main reason why private prisons exist in the US today is because they are cheaper than public ones. The GEO Group claims that their cost-effective imprisonment techniques save up to 30 percent and, with that, lower the financial burden on today’s taxpayers. Much of the cost-saving is due to lower staffing costs. CCA, the GEO Group, and its competitors can almost always undercut the state and offer their employees more limited compensation packages that are cheaper to fund. However, is exploiting private prison guards and officials the way we want to decrease taxes? Is oppressing a group of workers just to make prisons cheaper something for which we as a nation want to stand?
In the End.
Ultimately, the cost-cutting advantage simply does not outweigh all the problems —worse treatment of prisoners and guards, higher incarceration rates, and increased dependency on private companies — that come alongside private prisons. Corporations like CCA and the GEO Group enjoy too much power in government and bolster their ulterior motives to tweak legislation and public policy to their benefit. This is not fair — not to prisoners, many of whom are being incarcerated so that private prisons can make more revenue, not to the policy makers, who have to twist and bend to appease such companies, and certainly not to the US people. We need to act to change the system today.