Before the 1980s, there were zero private prisons in the United States. When Ronald Reagan was voted into the White House, the administration’s war on drugs campaign led to harsher sentencing policies for people selling or using things like marijuana and heroin. The emphasis on longer sentencing and fewer community rehabilitation options led to a higher rate of incarceration.
The inmate population began to climb upward quickly. It did not take long for the capacity of the nation’s prison system to be exceeded. In just four years, the country’s first for-profit prison was built in Tennessee to provide services for the government. Over the next six years, another 66 facilities would join the private prison industry in the United States.
The incarcerated population in America’s private prisons would rise by 1600% from 1990 to 2005 because of this shift in policy.
There have always been advantages and disadvantages of private prisons to consider. Even the government had serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of these institutions when compared to what a government-operated facility could achieve. In August 2016, the Justice Department announced plans to stop using private prisons, but the AG Jeff Sessions reversed that plan less than a year later.
List of the Advantages of Private Prisons
1. Privatization allows the market to maintain taxpayer expenses.
For-profit prisons work toward efficiencies that keep costs down as much as possible for taxpayers. The government might be able to leverage its size as a way to promote less spending on this societal need, but private prisons can use their better processes to do the same thing. This advantage depends on the organization being managed responsibly, along with having appropriate numbers of guards and administrators on site at all times to be useful.
2. Private prisons help to create jobs in their communities.
The privatization of prisons creates job opportunities on numerous levels for a community. There are direct jobs that are available in prison, such as corrections officers, administrative support, and medical supplementation. Service industry jobs are required to support the population in these facilities. Transportation professionals must deliver needed consumables to the community.
The private prison system in the United States generates over $80 billion in positive economic impacts each year.
3. A private prison works to reduce population ratios at the state/provincial and national levels.
The number of prisoners housed in public institutions is quickly outnumbering the beds and population levels that local facilities were designed to hold because of the number of offenders in the system. Before the judicial system stepped in to demand changes, many prisons in California were above 100% capacity, with some exceeding 130%.
When this issue combines with low staffing numbers, non-competitive pay, and the general dangers that come with working in prison, it can be challenging to control that environment. The opening of for-profit prisons allows the ratio of prisoners to personnel to move in a positive direction so that everyone can stay safer.
4. Released inmates have lower re-offense rates coming out of a private prison.
The rate of inmates re-offending and being sent back to prison in some regions can be over 80%. That means 4 out of 5 current inmates serving less than a life sentence will make their way back to prison at some point in their life. As an industry, a rate of 50% is considered to be an excellent rate. This perspective is because of the challenges that rehabilitation and reintegration create for offenders.
Private prisons can have re-offense rates that are at or below 20%. That means 3 prisoners decide to stay out of jail instead of going back behind bars thanks to this industry. Although for-profit prisons might require people to serve longer sentences, these offenders may spend less overall time behind bars because they have access to more resources when they get out.
5. A private prison can make money in multiple ways.
One of the most common uses for for-profit detention facilities is to accommodate immigration detention needs. These facilities can also be altered or used to provide several different community-based needs. Some have been turned into galleries or archives, while others have been converted into administrative offices.
A vacant 525-bed prison facility in Portland, OR is useful for recording movies and TV shows while serving as a foundation for the local anti-prison movement. The company that owns the property makes money from these activities even though it doesn’t serve as an actual jail.
6. Private prisons produce consistent results.
The privatization of prisons is a practice that societies have followed for several generations in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Governments have contracted out everything from food preparation to offender transportation needs to third-parties since the first operational contracts were awarded in the early 1980s to agencies that would provide the necessary resources for less than what the government could do on its own.
7. Decisions happen faster in the private prison system.
Decisions that involve the administration of the facility in the federal prison system in the United States must go through several levels of bureaucracy. Local congressional bodies may require involvement in the process as well. Any public changes to the jail may need to be approved by the governor or the President after debating and signing a bill into law.
The processes of change that exist in the public sector could last for up to four years in some situations. With a private prison, everything runs through the company running the facility instead. That means any policy or procedure changes receive immediate, direct implementation.
8. It can provide a job that serves as a stepping-stone into law enforcement work.
Even with a graduate-level criminal justice degree, finding employment in law enforcement can be a tricky premise. Many bureaus want qualified employees that can begin working instantly. For-profit institutions provide an entry-level position for correctional officers where that experience becomes obtainable. It is a chance to develop new skills, apply the knowledge from the educational processes for the first time, and become comfortable working with offenders.
This advantage can create some challenges because of the inexperience that some correctional officers may lack, but the benefits often outweigh the dangers for this key point.
List of the Disadvantages of Private Prisons
1. Private prisons turn human beings into a commodity.
Some proponents might argue that if you don’t want to be a prisoner, then don’t commit a crime in the first place. The reality of this industry is that a private prison doesn’t make money unless they have people to lock behind bars because they decided to commit a crime. There is also an incentive to keep people in prison longer so that the company operating the facility can make more money.
That means there are reasons to create stronger laws and longer sentences so that the agency can benefit. This disadvantage means that someone sentenced to a private facility might spend up to 10% more time in their cell compared to those serving a similar sentence in a public facility.
2. The companies running a private prison can sometimes choose their population.
Public prisons are usually more costly because they must take on all offenders, including those with severe security risks. A for-profit prison has the luxury of choosing which prisoners they believe will maximize their profits instead. If a low-risk offender becomes a high-risk inmate under the supervision of one of the companies in this industry, then most contracts allow them to replace one person for another. This disadvantage is the primary reason why there are cost-savings opportunities in the private sector.
3. A private prison usually has no obligation to the community.
Private prisons operate through contracts and legislation. What some people may not realize is that most communities are responsible for the jail facilities instead of the organization behind the private prison. That means the for-profit company might not be liable for upgrades, maintenance, or repairs to the structure when needed.
This disadvantage also means that the organization can decide to leave the prison facilities they feel like the location isn’t profitable enough for them. If that situation happens, then that community is stuck with a useless property, zero employment opportunities, and a lot of potential debt.
4. Correctional officers in private prisons face more violence.
Private prisons experience 50% more violence against employees from inmates when compared to the data from public institutions. The rate of violence against other offenders is even higher when looking at non-government-run facilities.
Many of the privatized prisons today receive staffing waivers that allow them to keep higher prisoner-to-officer ratios in their facility than what the government must offer in the public sector. It is not unusual to see a private prison operating at a rate of one officer for every 120 inmates. These facilities often rely on offenders to govern themselves as a way to keep costs even lower.
5. Private prisons may influence legislations inappropriately.
Since for-profit companies need prisoners to make money off of their prison, they lobby legislative bodies to change how the implementation of laws occurs. Private prisons ask for more extended standard sentencing guidelines because that will help their profit margin while providing revenue security.
Some institutions might even lobby local prosecutors or police officers to charge individuals with higher-level crimes than warranted because of the chance that the individual could receive a longer sentence that is servable within their facilities.
6. A private prison company pays correctional officers less than the government does.
According to information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical correctional officer in a public prison in the United States earns over $35 per hour. These employees receive overtime eligibility with that salary in most situations. They are treated as public service workers too, which means they are often available for better leave benefits, pensions, and affordable health insurance.
The same data set shows that the average private prison correctional officer averages $14 per hour. There may not be a benefits package associated with that salary either. Some institutions will even create these positions as exempt so that there is no requirement to pay overtime, even if 12- to 18-hour days are mandatory.
7. It can be more expensive to house offenders in a private prison.
Lower per-prisoner costs are one of the first advantages touted by proponents of the private prison system. According to reporting by The New York Times, inmates in a private setting may cost up to $1,600 per year more per person when compared to the public sector. This disadvantage exists with persistence even though there are laws in place in the United States that require for-profit institutions in this industry to implement cost-saving measures whenever possible or feasible.
8. There is less transparency in the private system.
Even though the government receives frequent accusations of trying to cover up information so that the public can’t see what is going on in a facility, private prisons take this disadvantage to a different level. The government is the default accountability for a community when a facility fails to provide safe housing to the offender population. That means the agencies involved in this industry are not treated to the same standard. Since the right to inspect a business is different in some jurisdictions, there might not be any way to determine if people receive ethical treatment during their stay in the facility.
9. It encourages more money to change hands inappropriately.
Millions of dollars have changed hands over the years when judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel accept money in exchange for sentences to specific private facilities. This disadvantage applies to the juvenile justice system as well. In 2008, the owner of for-profit youth centers in this industry paid off judges to sentence children harshly so that they would have an extended stay in his program. One student was given a substantial sentence for unflattering words about his principal on social media.
There are potentially hundreds of cases that deserve another review because of the issue of bribery in the criminal justice system. If there is a chance that behavior could make money, then the motive of the business is to follow the profits instead of doing what may be best for the individual.
10. Private prisons create a system of dependency.
When governments rely on private prisons to provide needed safety services, the potential for an unfavorable dependency becomes possible in the communities where these facilities operate. A for-profit company could use that yoke as leverage to bargain for higher compensation rates.
A standard method of negotiation in the private prison industry is to offer services at lower costs. This action works to create a monopoly around those services. Then the provider can increase prices so that there are more opportunities to maximize profits. If the privatization of prisons continues, then this disadvantage is a genuine outcome possibility.
11. The private prison industry limits training opportunities.
Private prisons achieve lower operational costs because they reduce their labor expenses. This disadvantage means that correctional officers and their administrative support personnel receive fewer training opportunities to enhance their skills. When you combine this problem with a higher offender-to-officer ratio, there can be extreme levels of stress in this correctional environment. The impact affects everyone involved, including the inmates, and this process can make the facility less safe.
Even though there is a small fiscal benefit that comes to fruition when the emphasis of a private prison is to keep labor costs as low as possible, the recovery costs after an incident occurs can negate most, if not all, of the savings that are possible.
12. Correctional officers leave private prisons more often.
Employment as a correctional officer is one of the most stressful positions available in the criminal justice system today. Almost 60% of new workers (3 out of 5 people) decide to leave the industry for good within 36 months of receiving their first job offer. The high turnover rates in the prison system are one of the most significant needs that must be addressed.
There are significantly higher levels of stress, fatigue, and leadership voids found in this industry, especially in the private sector, compared to other positions that could be available with a degree in criminal justice.
Private prisons serve a reluctant need in many communities. Changes to legislation could reduce population levels as effectively, if not better, than allowing more companies to open jails that they operate to create profits.
Privatization also creates more safety risks and offer fewer services, which can be a dangerous combination for underpaid correctional officers to manage.
It is essential to remember that there is an equal number of studies that support the idea of prison privatization as there are ones that recommend against this policy. Even the government struggles to know whether or not this idea is a good one.
That means the advantages and disadvantages of private prisons rely on individual perspectives and community involvement. If we work together to keep costs down while maintaining appropriate conditions, then it can be a useful business model for the criminal justice system. When this level of support is not possible, then pursuing this idea may not be in our best interests.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.