The Effects Of Prison Privatization And Possible Alternatives


The means of treating offenders has been a controversial issue for centuries. Since the early 20th century, prisons have been one of the main forms of dealing with prisoners. The four main principles of sentencing are deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation and incapacitation. Prisons first operated as a means to deter and incapacitate offenders, and offer retribution for the victims/ victims family as an “eye for an eye” situation. This is reflected in the “life for a life” thinking behind murder sentences. As the decades have gone on, prisons have started to offer certain rehabilitative programmes. This meets all four of the purposes of sentencing. However, prisons do not come cheap, in fact, the Vera Institute of Justice states that in 2012 the average cost of housing an inmate per year was $31,286 in the United States. As such, when the concept of “privatization” came around in the early 1980’s, the government and correctional departments were all for it.

The method behind privatization was that independent contractors would run the prisons “for a profit.” These independent contractors, such as Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, receive from the Government a sum of money for each prisoner. While there are rules and regulations that independent contractors are to abide by in the everyday running of the prison, it is up to them to make a profit off the prisoners. In some prisons, this is achieved by means of making prisoners work while they are in prison. The Progressive Labour Party in the United States has compared this to slave labour and exploitation. The incarceration rate is the highest it has ever been currently, and when there is an incentive by these corporations to imprison people, why wouldn’t it be? Justice should not be for profit. There are many reasons behind this, including reformation, safety and the international obligations that arise when dealing with offenders. Moreover, when they were first established and in the following years, prisons seemed an appropriate means for dealing with offenders, recidivism rates throughout the past century have proved that imprisonment doesn’t always have the intended effect in terms of deterrence and rehabilitation.

While violence is prevalent in prison society, there have been calls that it is far worse at private prisons. As the corporations who run the prisons primary aim is to make a profit, the guard-to-prisoner ratio is usually less. A prison administrator operating at a private prison in Virginia actually coined this as “the secret to making a profit.” Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility is privately run and averages three injuries per day. The conditions at this facility are allegedly akin to “the deepest depths of hell,” and this particular institution has had lawsuits filed against it for abuse of staff and prisoners alike. In addition, other privately owned prisons such as the Idaho Correctional Centre are reported by the American Civil Liberties Union to be rampant with violence. Subsequent to having minimal staff, private prison officers are reported to be inexperienced and poorly trained in comparison to officers operating in government-run prisons. In 2010, three prisoners including convicted murderer Tracy Province escaped from a privately owned prison in Arizona. In the time that followed the escape. they broke the law countless times during what was dubbed the “states worst escape in 30 years” by the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections. While these events may seem like one-offs, and things which will inevitably occur in a prison environment, there is no coincidence that they take place within these privatized prisons.

As mentioned above, rehabilitation is one of the main purposes and aims of sentencing. Rehabilitation only works in prisons if they have acquired specific programmes to enable the offender to gain an insight into society and how to flourish within it. Examples of these programmes are anger management, drug and alcohol abuse, and parenting courses. It is well established that a big part of prison privatization is the profits earned by the corporations who have control over them – without this, there would be no point, from the corporation’s perspective. Therefore, it is unlikely that private prisons would put funding into ensuring that these programmes operated as effectively as possible.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission adopted a series of rules in the treatment of offenders which are known as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. While it is identified that these rules are not appropriate in every situation, the United Nations provides that States should endeavour to follow them where they can and that they represent a “minimum standard of treatment.” However, there are a number of these rules which do not seem to adhere to the ideology of privatizing prisons. For example, Rule 72 states that the work and vocational training of the prisoners must not be subordinated to the purpose of making a financial profit, and Rule 63 states that there must be an accurate staff to prisoner ratio to ensure the individualisation of treatment is not hindered. While the private prisons operating in the United States and around the world do not outright breach these “minimum rules,” they certainly bring them into question.

Prior to the 2016 United States Presidential Election, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Raul Grijalva initiated a Bill named the “Justice Is Not For Sale Act” which addressed the problems with prison privatization and proposed that it be phased out within the next 2-3 years. However, this Bill did not get very far as the Trump administration rejected it soon after its proposal. This is unfortunate, as incarceration has been shown to be one of the least rehabilitative sentences, while prison privatization creates incentives to increase the prison population. It is unlikely that another Bill such as the “Justice Is Not For Sale Act” will be proposed to the United States Government in the near future, due to old-fashioned attitudes and views towards offenders. Nevertheless, there are measures which can be taken to limit the control and amount of profit these corporations make from prisons. In terms of abiding by international obligations, the government could increase the rules surrounding private prisons to ensure that there is an appropriate number of guards to prisoners ratio, and to minimize the profits made from prison labour.

Many people don’t realize that there are three different elements to every crime. These are the offender, the victim and society. While the offender is always dealt with, the victim and society are often left out of the equation. If the court takes community-based sentences into consideration when sentencing the offender, it ensures that society plays its part in sentencing the offender. In other countries, such as New Zealand, throughout the past two decades, a focus has been put on community-based sentences such as community work, supervision/intensive supervision and restorative justice. These measures guarantee a rehabilitative focus, while at the same time mean that the community is getting compensation from the offender by means of community work. Whether this is removing graffiti, helping out a non-government organisation (not for profit), or coaching children’s sports teams, it is a lot more than what society would gain if the offender was locked in prison. The victim of every crime is the element which is most often left out of sentencing. This is where the concept of restorative justice comes in. Restorative justice plays a large part in New Zealand’s criminal justice system and is incorporated into the Sentencing Act 2002. The ideology behind this is that the offender and victim voluntarily meet, and discuss the impacts and consequences that the offending has had on the victim. Often these conferences enlighten the offender as to how much their crimes really affect people, and it helps to see these impacted people face to face.

There are many alternatives to prison, and there is no question that incarceration should always be the final option when the other sentences available are extinguished. While in some cases imprisonment will be wholly appropriate for the crime which has been committed, it is imperative for the criminal justice system that no external incentives exist (such as profit to be gained from more prisoners) to persuade the people involved in sentencing that prison will be the right option. There is no doubt that numerous offenders who are incarcerated in the United States would benefit a great deal from one of these community-based sentences.

Letitia Smith

Letitia is in her fourth year of study, working towards a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Criminal Justice.
Letitia Smith