The benefits of private prisons
Jordan Ryan | Thursday, October 13, 2016
There are a total of 2.2 million incarcerated adults presently housed in U.S. correctional facilities. To the surprise of many, roughly 8 percent of those inmates live in privately owned prisons; ones that the government pays private contractors to run. Last month, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer contract with these private prison operators and would not renew relationships as existing agreements expire for 13 federal correction facilities. The department argues that these prisons are immoral and not cost-effective. What the Justice Department has not recognized is that these private prisons could be incredibly beneficial to our criminal justice system.
The argument against private prisons is persuasive from a moral perspective. Arguably, no one should profit from the incarceration of another person. But there is truly no way to avoid “profiting” from incarceration. Even in public facilities, private contractors inevitably are used. How else would you have food for the inmates, or electricity and television, or a general contractor to build and maintain the facility? Why is the actual management of the facility being private any different from other profit-motivated enterprises?
The move by the Obama Justice Department is in large part a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over the past several years, our nation has seen a material reduction in the federal prison population, a reduction driven largely in part by changes in federal sentencing policies. The Administration and its Justice Department are now using this drop to justify the elimination of prison privatization at the federal level. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and Sen. Bernie Sanders support the elimination of private prison contractors.
Though it is difficult to properly compare prison systems due to each having specific purposes with specific circumstances and demographics, conclusions were reached in a 2009 meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Utah. Researchers compared eight different studies, half of which found private prisons to be more cost-efficient. The findings of the remaining four were evenly split with two finding that public facilities were more cost-efficient and two concluding that both types of prisons were statistically even. This shows how private prisons are more likely to be cost efficient, though the findings are not entirely conclusive. Significantly, according to the report published by the Department of Justice, private prisons are better at finding, seizing and recording contraband than their public counterparts. Moreover, inmates in private prisons are less likely to use drugs or be subject to or involved in sexual misconduct.
Of course, privately operated facilities are not without their problems. Privately managed prisons attempt to control costs by regularly providing lower levels of staff benefits and salaries than publicly run facilities. Additionally, private prison employees receive, on average, 58 hours less training than their publicly employed counterparts, leading to higher turnover rates in private prisons than in public ones. The Justice Department report also concluded that there were higher numbers of safety and security incidents at some private facilities.
There is, however, a real danger of over-generalizing the condemnation of private correctional facilities. Consider, for example, the fact that our partially privatized system cannot be too deficient given that other nations have begun to follow suit. In the past decade, 11 other major countries have contracted prison systems to the private market. Australia, England and Wales, New Zealand and Scotland all currently have a larger commitment to prison privatization in terms of the share of prisoners held privately than does the United States.
Private prisons can be part of the solution and should be used to more efficiently and effectively reform the criminal justice system. In other words, it does not necessarily follow that the government can do a better job at housing, treating and most importantly, rehabilitating our prison population. We can begin to alter our standards to improve these facilities. We can urge them to include rehabilitation services, as well as improved food, health care and safety measures. Given the nature of the competitive free market, if better standards and performance metrics were to be applied, costs will naturally be driven to their lowest possible, meaning that we can save money and promote improved rehabilitation while reducing recidivism. Contrary to the current “progressive” thinking, the elimination of the privatization of our nation’s federal correctional institutions will not necessarily lead to criminal justice reform but may well institutionalize higher costs and other ineffectiveness.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.