The True Price of For-Profit Prisons

unholy-allianceMuch more needs to be done to address the horrors of the for-profit prison system in our country. Both state and federal governments give large sums of money to a few mega-companies that privately run most of the prisons. The contracts with these companies require the government to keep prison beds full, so governments must increasingly imprison people even though crime rates are falling. This is a big part of our country’s mass incarceration problem. And these for-profit prison companies run their private prisons as cheaply as possible to maximize profits, resulting in nightmare conditions for those unlucky enough to be caught up in the profit-making scheme. Private prisons cut prison education and rehabilitation programs and slash spending and staffing. Not surprisingly, as a result they host grisly squalor, pervasive violence, rampant drug use, medical neglect, and an increase in prison deaths.

With that in mind, the Justice Department announced a few weeks ago that the federal government will phase out the use of private, for-profit prisons for federal prisoners. This is a step in the right direction, but true justice requires far more. While important, this move will only dent the dreadful injustices brought to us by the big for-profit prison corporations.

For one thing, the Justice Department’s change will not affect anyone housed in a state prison, where the for-profit prison companies will continue to make a killing and where the vast majority of this country’s prisoners are held. In that context, the federal government’s shift is just a small drop in the bucket. For instance, one mega for-profit prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), has been trying to buy up the prisons in 48 states, giving it a revenue jump of more than 500 percent in the last twenty years. Such for-profit prison companies are supported by powerful insiders who will vigorously fight their demise.

The Justice Department’s change also will not apply to for-profit immigration detention centers. More than half of the tens of thousands of people held in immigration detention centers are infants or children. Many are merely asylum seekers, but the for-profit detention centers imprison them in oppressive jail-like conditions that would be inhumane even for criminals. Complaints include inadequate food (and inedible food, like maggots in food served to families); sweltering, unhygienic living conditions where detainees are unable to bathe, wash their hands or flush the toilet; and a dangerous lack of medical and mental health care. The federal government has contracted with the for-profit prison companies to provide immigration detention at a cost of over $2 billion per year, which generates tremendous profits for the prison companies. The government is currently considering extending its for-profit prison phase out to include immigration detention centers, and one can only hope that the federal government will do the right thing and stop using for-profit prisons in any context.

Finally, the for-profit prison corporations anticipated this phase out and have already begun an insidious shift to privatizing the rehabilitation industry. These companies seek to transfer their profit-motive business model into the re-entry and rehabilitation programs that transition former inmates from prison to civilian life. The results of allowing for-profit prison companies to run these programs are predictably disastrous. The corporations have immediately cut food, nutrition, healthcare, counseling, staffing, programs, and other resources in the transitional housing. At the same time, they have pushed for increases in ankle monitoring and other efforts to keep people in the system and under their control. At the end of the day, for-profit prison companies running the rehabilitation industry have a financial incentive to make sure people fail – that’s the best way to ensure that their exorbitant profits keep rolling in. We should not allow mega-corporations with a profit motive to set former prisoners up to fail by letting those businesses run re-entry and rehabilitation programs. This is especially true since they have such a horrible track record of  running prisons.

Thus, while I applaud the Justice Department’s important first step of phasing out for-profit federal prisons, there is a long way to go to truly address the problem and eliminate the insiders from profiting off human misery that they create.


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