Should Private businesses be incarcerating Americans?

Private companies running American jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers expect to earn a lot of money from the Trump administration.

Around 1980, private companies began to see the potential for profit in punishment and started to build private jails and prisons. Since then, it has become a permanent part of the corrections landscape in the US. The three big providers are Corrections Corporation of America now known as Core Civic, GEO Group, and Management Training Corporation. Only MTC is not publicly traded.

It started as a stopgap measure to accommodate the huge increase in prison population starting in the 80s. Tax payers didn’t want to pay for more pubic prisons. Legislators didn’t want to lose elections by looking like they weren’t tough on crime. The solution was private prisons buying their way into the incarceration business.

The sales pitch was they could carry out the public function of incarceration just as efficiency and safely as public institutions at a lower cost. At the end of the Obama administration a DOJ Inspector General’s report found

that private prisons were not

cheaper and had more, not

less, problems with contraband and instances of assault

and more use of force by

guards than in government run prisons. Obama planned to scale back and eventually end the use government use of private prisons. That order has been reversed by the Trump administration and the stock of private prison companies has jumped.

There are 2,300,000 people incarcerated in county jail, state prison, and federal prison. Nine percent of US state prisoners are in private state prisons and 18% of federal prisoners are in private prisons totaling a combined 126,000 inmates in private facilities. I’m not sure what the total is for county jails in the US but the Delaware County, Pennsylvania George Hill Prison is privately run by the Geo Group and is the only privately run prison in Pennsylvania. The decision to privatize the county prison is in the hands of a Delaware County council vote. There’s an expensive Request for Proposal in the works to start the process of seeking a new prison provider.

What folks need to pay attention to is how privatized immigration detention is increasing in America. Over 60% of beds in US immigration facilities are privatized with over 2/3 of all the immigration detentions being housed in private facilities. Entire families are housed. These are civil detainees. Very few have been convicted of violating a criminal law. These people are undocumented citizens and are awaiting asylum hearings and deportation hearings. People are behind bars, they are not free to go. And these private immigration facilities are turning up all around the county. ICE is seeking turnkey detention beds in the interior of America detaining immigrants living in communities across the country. Trump has requested $1.2 billion in the 2018 budget to expand immigration detention capacity.

Some question if bringing private industry into a public function such as incarceration creates perverse incentives to do things in ways that maybe aren’t for the public good but to make profits. How do they maximize their profits? What do they do differently?

Basically, it’s been found that private prisons make their money by cutting back on prison staff and programs for the prisoners. Public sector prisons offer more robust programs for prisoners designed to enrich the inmates and rehabilitate them if possible to have them not come back. They have larger and better trained staff (often unionized) that can make the institution as safe as possible. Private prisons have different incentives. It’s a market driven operation.

In the contracts between private prisons and the government, they have guaranteed bed provisions. Corporations require the government to pay the company as if the prison is 80%, 90%, or 100% occupied, even if it’s only 50% full. Duh! This gives the government incentive to fill those prisons. They don’t want to pay for empty beds. Mandatory minimum sentences, long prison terms, denying parole, and recidivism aids greatly at keeping the beds full even when arrest rates go down on the streets.

The higher security prisons cost more to run than lower security prisons. The government may send the lower security individuals to the private prisons because the staff inmate ratio can be lowered with less risk.

Private prison don’t have the same reporting requirements as public prisons. They operate under a veil of secrecy claiming to be exempt from public records laws that apply to public operating facilities. It depends on state legislation whether they’re open to same records request. In Pennsylvania they are not.

Listen to Delco CPR Leadership Team Member M Tonita Austin  and returning citizen Bernard Taylor talk about Delco CPR’s work and their perspectives on why this matters!  They shared with 900 am WURD radio in Philadelphia.…(29 min clip)

Much of the content for this article came from Lauren-Brooke Eisen’s book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration.