Private Prisons for Public Prisoners? It’s Time for States to Take a Second Look

Bob Donley reports that states are taking a second look at private prisons. About thirty years ago, when the private prison industry began, the theory was that corporations could run prisons more effectively and less expensively than state governments. (See LBN’s earlier reports on private prisons). It began as a theory, but it has turned into a booming business. Nearly ten percent of all prisons are now privately operated.

At the same time, profits for private prison companies have risen 500% in the past twenty years. The natural question is, how is that possible? Donley explains that the prison companies make more money the old-fashioned way, by cutting costs. A psychiatrist who investigated privately-operated prisons in Mississippi said that he saw inmates who were emaciated. Inmates had lost anywhere from ten to sixty pounds. Less food means more profit.

Another cost saving area is air conditioning. People who seem to know say that some privately operated prisons are not air conditioned or that they cut back on the use of air conditioning during the hottest months of the year. Anyone who has paid an electric bill for July and August knows that air conditioning is expensive. Donley points out that big profits are possible if a company can skip air conditioning in the hot months.

Another problem that has become apparent is that private prisons have staffing issues. They either don’t have enough guards or the ones they have are poorly trained, sometimes both. Another source of profit for prison companies has been inmate labor. Donley notes that inmates are used in the manufacture of all sorts of things, like military helmets, ID tags, canteens, and bulletproof vests, are being manufactured by inmates who are paid extremely low wages for their work.

The biggest issue, says Donley, is the growing trend to guarantee a particular occupancy rate to private prisons. A typical guaranteed rate is 90%, but some states have guaranteed 100%. What this means is that states must provide the prisoners to fill those bunks or pay a penalty to the private prison operator. About half of all illegal immigrants who are in jail are being kept in private facilities. Even though violent crime has decreased over the past two decades, prison populations have risen. Violent offenders have been replaced by drug offenders serving long, mandated terms. The War on Drugs has incarcerated about half of the men in prison.

Donley says that it is time to stop and take a second look at what is going on behind bars.

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