When someone decides to break the law and is found guilty of their actions, what should their consequence be? For many years, the solution has been imprisonment that is overseen by some level of government. In the United States, prisons may be overseen by local, regional, state, or national authorities.
The problem with a prison is that it can be very costly to run. In the United States, more than $80 billion is spent annually to support a general population incarceration rate of about 1%. Numerous solutions have been suggested, including the idea of having the government get out of the business of incarceration.
The advantages and disadvantages of private prisons often look at managing costs while improving rehabilitation opportunities. Here are some of the key points to consider in this debate.
What Are the Advantages of Private Prisons?
1. Private prisons are potentially cheaper for taxpayers.
Private businesses can leverage pricing controls for resources with greater flexibility than a government provider. A private business can act quickly to search for best practices, improve operation efficiencies, and implement cost-savings measures. It also reduces the size of government because operational responsibilities shift to a private institution, which further reduces taxpayer costs.
2. There is an economic benefit to the local community.
Communities that have private prisons operating within their oversight often receive new tax revenues, have new jobs to provide local workers, and this creates more spending for the support businesses.
3. Prisoner population levels are appropriately maintained.
Many public prison systems are operating at a capacity that is much higher than originally intended. In California, the public prison system was operating at 137.5% of capacity before the Supreme Court required the state to begin reducing overcrowding. Private prisons can better control population levels by transporting prisoners to specific locations where there are greater needs. This lessens the threat of overcrowding on local systems while still allowing for profitability.
4. Private prisons can lower the rates of reoffending.
A study of a private prison in Arkansas tracked over 650 women who were released after they completed a re-entry program. After 5 years, only 1 in 5 of the women being tracked had committed another criminal offense. This means that private prisons have the potential to lower the rates of reoffending by up to 50% in some regions.
5. Facilities can be used for various purposes.
Many private prisons are today being used for immigration housing and detention purposes. They can also be retrofitted to serve a variety of community needs if the need for a prison goes away. This allows for the investments that a community provides to not be in vain should prisoner levels not be as high as anticipated.
6. Governments have contracted prisoners out to third-parties for several years.
Specific services for the public prison system have been contracted out to private businesses for more than a century. This includes inmate transportation, food preparation, medical services, and even vocational training. These structures easily transition over to the management and operations of the entire prison. Private prisons have been in place with the modern US criminal justice system since 1984, when Corrections Corporation of America was awarded their first operational contract.
What Are the Disadvantages of Private Prisons?
1. Prisoners tend to serve longer sentences in private prisons.
Studies from the University of Wisconsin system have shown that prisoners who are being held in private prisons may serve sentences that are up to 7% longer than prisoners who are in public prisons serving a similar sentence. This is directly correlated to the profit-potential that each prisoner provides the organization that is overseeing the incarceration.
2. Many private prisons do not house costly prisoners.
Many private prisons are given the opportunity to pick and choose which prisoners they house. High-risk prisoners tend to be costlier to supervise, which means they have a higher cost to the business. These costly prisoners are shipped back to public prisons, sticking taxpayers with the cost while the private prison profits off the “easier” prisoners. A study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that Arizona public facilities were 7 times more likely to house a violent offender a 3 times more likely to house an inmate convicted of a serious offense compared to private prisons in the area.
3. Private prisons can leave communities with costly facilities that are empty.
Private prisons are operated on a contractual basis. The community is often responsible for the facility, while the private prison is responsible for filling the beds. If the private prison sees no profit in continuing the operation, they can close their doors and stick a community with an empty facility, no jobs, and the bills that remain for the initial construction.
4. Private prisons tend to be more violent because of low staffing levels.
Private prisons see up to 50% more violence when compared to public prisons with regards to inmate-on-officer assaults. For-profit facilities also see over 60% more inmate-on-inmate assaults. This is often due to low officer staffing levels that are in private facilities. Some officer-to-prisoner ratios in private prisons can exceed 1 officer to every 120 prisoners.
5. Prisoners can be thousands of miles away from their family.
Prisoner exchange programs can cause inmate transfers that may be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from their family. This removes the prisoner from their network of support, forcing them to rely on internal systems to meet their needs. This creates more barriers to rehabilitation, making the private prison more about housing prisoners and less about bringing them back into society as a productive member.
6. It creates the foundation for corruption.
Because prisoners are required for a private prison to be profitable, their budgets are never 100% certain. To solve this problem, there are several instances of corporations working with local systems of justice to extend sentences to longer lengths or charge with higher-level crimes for longer sentences.
7. Employee wages are often lower and there are often fewer benefits.
One of the ways that the private prison system saves money is by providing employees with lower wages and fewer benefits than employees in the public prison system. Correctional officers in the public system can earn up to $75,000 per year. In comparison, many correctional officers in the private system may earn as little as $14 per hour.
8. There may be zero cost-savings advantages.
Comparisons of private vs public prisons that are of similar size and house similar inmates show that both systems face similar cost-per-day rates, despite the fact that private institutions often pay lower wages and employ fewer workers.
The advantages and disadvantages of private prisons involve cost, efficiency, and effectiveness. When a private prison is operating with best practices and focused on rehabilitation, it can be a beneficial addition to a community. Unfortunately, many corporations have a reputation of focusing on profits over purpose, which can create numerous hardships.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.