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The Moral and Financial Debacle of Private Prisons

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When prisons become businesses, inmates make a disturbing transition from people to profit. The severe neglect faced by inmates shows that many private prisons emphasize financial savings over rehabilitation, and they’re charging states a fortune to do it. On Jan. 26, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to start the process of ending federal contracts with private prisons. Here’s why.

A brief history of private prisons

It’s no surprise that private prisons began to pop up in the 1980s, around the same time we were flooding America’s prisons with nonviolent drug offenders incarcerated as a result of the “War On Drugs.”

Seeing an opportunity, companies stepped in and founded private prisons, or for-profit prisons, which are prisons run by a company contracted by the government. For-profit prisons promised to operate with greater efficiency, which would allow states to cut costs from their growing corrections budgets.

When states and federal prisons contracted with private companies, they signed contracts that guarantee a certain number of beds in prison to be in use at any given point – the most common rate is 90%, with some actually at 100%. This guarantees the prison management companies that they will continually turn a profit, regardless of actual crime levels.

Between 1999 and 2014, the number of individuals held in private prisons grew by 90%. In 2019, private prisons (federal and in 30 states) housed 115,428 inmates.

In general, studies prior to 2001 found that private prisons functioned as well as or even better than public prisons. However, recent studies and cases have suggested the opposite.

Do private prisons save money?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded in a study that the cost savings promised for private prisons have “simply not materialized” and have not made a substantial impact on corrections budgets. In 2019, the Associated Press reported that state prisons cost about $44.56 per inmate per day, while private prisons saw a cost of $49.07.

Additionally, studies have found that the cost savings projected by private prisons are often skewed because the companies will refuse to take prisoners that cost the most to house, including more violent offenders needing solitary confinement or other services.

But the bigger question is not whether they save money, but how they save it: cutting down on food, spending less on healthcare and understaffing.

In focus: Private healthcare in Arizona

When Regan Clarine was incarcerated in Arizona just days before giving birth, she requested an ultrasound but never received one. When she went into delivery, she was forced into a cesarean section. Her wound came open days later, and after weeks of no treatment, healthcare officials finally treated her wound by pouring sugar into it.

Investigations following this incident revealed dozens of cases with neglect similar to Clarine’s. A former employee of Arizona’s healthcare company, Corizon Health, explained that the company understaffed the prison to the point that prisoners were regularly neglected.

The employee’s claims are backed by the fact that Arizona’s medical spending in prisons dropped by $30 million since privatizing its prison healthcare system. In the first eight months of 2013, 50 people died in corrections custody compared with 37 deaths in the previous two years combined.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in 2012 saying that the health care in Arizona’s prisons now amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, with prisoners at risk of “pain, amputation, disfigurement and death.”

In focus: Private food service in Michigan

Michigan was forced to drop its contract with Aramark Correctional Services in 2015 after almost 200 of the company’s employees were fired or banned from the prison.

Aramark employees were found shorting meals from prisoners, smuggling drugs and other contraband to prisoners, and having sex with inmates. Maggots were found in the kitchens, and there was even a contracted prison hit.

Michigan turned its foodservice over to Trinity Services Group, another private food service company.

In focus: Private prisons in Mississippi

A 2012 investigation into a privately run juvenile detention center in Mississippi found a slew of disturbing incidents.

Prison staff were having sex with incarcerated youth, brutally beating juveniles and using pepper spray as a first response. Staff ignored instances of fights and rapes, and neglected to remove weapons held by inmates. It was even found that some guards had gang affiliations and would give favorable treatment to inmates in the same gangs as them.

In the words of Federal Judge Carlton Reeves, the prison “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.”

The state ended its contract with the GEO group, and the youths were moved to other facilities.

Private prisons in a broader context: Is the money worth it?

These alarming cases of neglect have been found in private prisons all around the country. While these individual cases may not be the rule for every facility, they signify a trend that we cannot ignore: When prisons are run like businesses, the desire to cut costs and raise profit margins become more important than the people ostensibly in the facilities’ care.

Studies are still claiming that the cost savings of private prisons are significant and that state governments should be pursuing more contracts. A 2014 study concluded that private prisons offer massive cost savings and that “competition yields savings and better performance across the prison industry.”

More importantly, relocating prisoners to private facilities fails to address our larger problem of mass incarceration and prevent people from going to prison in the first place. Operating any facility efficiently is important, but treating prisoners as profit margins fundamentally degrades them as people. Private prisons have zero incentive to improve recidivism rates and, in fact, have the incentive to put more people in prison and gain more profit.

The occasional savings of this system are not worth the mistreatment of anyone protected by our constitutional rights in this country.

The Future of Private Prisons

If the trend of the past two decades continues, will the private prison market will continue to grow? The public has remained largely unaware of the abuse and neglect occurring behind bars in these facilities. Start paying attention by reviewing every candidate’s position on the issue and get involved by making your voice heard.

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