Profits are king in private prison industry

Photo by Casey Gomez

Despite accounting for only 4.4 percent of the world population, the United States currently houses about 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, according to World Justice project Rule of Law. With 2.3 million prisoners (as of 2017) in about 4,000 facilities nationwide, the U.S. has turned to a new means of housing them: private prisons.

While the U.S. government has been contracting prison-related services such as prisoner transportation and job programs for decades, the very first for-profit, private prison opened in 1984. The 1980s had seen a rise in incarceration rates due to the War on Drugs, resulting in prison overcrowding and high costs, and CoreCivic (then called the Corrections Corporation of America) was awarded a contract to take over and manage a corrections facility in Tennessee.

The trend continued with other private prison companies like the GEO Group, who reported revenue of $1.84 billion in 2015, which CoreCivic matched in 2016. The rise in private prisons matched the rise in incarceration rates, further bolstered by three-strikes laws and longer sentences on average. Contracting prisons to private companies saved states money and was profitable enough that corporations such as Wells Fargo, General Electric and Bank of America began investing millions.

However, the savings and profit translated to poor facility maintenance, substandard security and inadequate staff training. In August of last year, then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates stated that the Justice Department would begin the process of phasing out for-profit prisons, saying that private corrections facilities were “less safe and less effective at providing correctional services” than those run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The current administration has already reversed this stance, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturning the ban on the grounds that it “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” Rather than working to improve the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Department of Corrections, the current administration is opting to outsource to the private sector, a move that could ultimately result in making the problem much worse.

While the old saying “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” holds true regardless, the economic damage of high recidivism rates demands a shift in perspective: according to the Bureau of Justice, 76.6 percent of released prisoners re-offend within five years. Should prisons focus on punishment or rehabilitation? In the case of non-violent crimes and first offenders, it makes more sense to provide programs that encourage people to return to work rather than to house them until they finish their sentence and, statistically, re-offend.

While violent offenders should be kept separate as a matter of public safety, the most cost-effective solution to the U.S.’s high incarceration rate would be to lower the recidivism rate and to discourage practices that incentivize filling prison cells. This includes profiting from them.

For-profit prisons monetize a social ill, offering a short-term solution that will eventually and generally unavoidably become a long-term problem. While states may initially save money by making the decision to contract out their corrections facilities, the loss will inevitably return in the form of more inmates to pay for, inadequate programs, and released convicts with fewer economic opportunities who have a higher likelihood of re-offending.

Crime in the U.S. is a problem, and the Department of Corrections is far from perfect, but for-profit prisons are not the answer, especially when many of them look to fill “occupancy quotas” just to keep their prisons open.

This is not to say that a convicted person should not have to serve their sentence for the crime committed, but rather that a business depending on people to break the law operates against the safety of the community at large.

The only way for a private prison to serve the community while still completing its main objective of generating revenue necessarily would be to offer the same or better quality programs than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But this exact course of action is not in the best interest of a firm whose primary profit source stems from the number of cell bunks filled.

They say crime does not pay, but with the upward trend of for-profit prisons, crime absolutely does — as long as you are the jailor.