Much has been written in recent years about the dangers of privately run prisons.
What is a private prison? Suppose the state of Michigan decides it’s too expensive to continue operating their prisons with government money. Or suppose every prison bed in Michigan is full, and there’s no money available in Michigan’s budget to build a new prison. What to do?
In comes Correctional Corporation of America (now called CoreCivic, but at the time, better known as CCA) and GEO Group to the rescue. These are the two largest for-profit companies whose goal it is to make money by operating prisons on behalf of Michigan (in our example).
These companies are like franchisees, with full control over day-to-day operations. Michigan may have been paying $390 million dollars a year for their state prisons. Now, hypothetically, they can enter into a long-term agreement with CCA, and pay them $190 million, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars — money taxpayers are glad to have spent on education, building new parks, improving roadways, and other more positive and fulfilling ventures.
The contracts states enter into with private prison companies are based on the number of inmates housed in the private facility. Some estimate this amount at $60 per inmate per day. CCA would receive extra money if the inmate was enrolled in a required treatment program, such as those for sexual and drug offenders. Since CCA must pay the clinicians’ salaries, the dollar amount might be $200 per inmate per day, for those in treatment programs.
What follows from all this? First, companies like GEO Group have no incentive to release prisoners. The more beds they fill, the more profit they make. So an inmate who is eligible for parole in 2018 might not even be allowed to begin his treatment program until years later. In CCA’s mind, there’s no rush. He also may be kicked out of his treatment program, for a trivial reason, and required to start over from the beginning, thereby giving CCA additional money.
Conversely, a state run prison will be much more likely to graduate an inmate from his treatment program on his first attempt. Making him start over would be too expensive. State run prisons are financially motivated to “rehabilitate” and release inmates. Private prisons are financially motivated to do just the opposite.
The same judges who sentence inmates are able to own stock in CCA and GEO Group, and according to Prison Legal News, this is a regular occurrence. This creates a huge conflict of interest. In Idaho, CCA contributed a significant amount of money to Governor Butch Otter’s re-election campaign — the same Governor who then voted in favor of prison privatization in Idaho. In Texas, CCA was kind enough to provide a “free” assembly at a public high school, to educate kids on the dangers of drug use. During this assembly, CCA brought drug-sniffing dogs who detected drugs in several students’ backpacks, ultimately leading to their arrest and detention at a CCA run juvenile detention center, where CCA is paid hundreds of dollars per child per day. The free assembly was, essentially, a bizarre form of business development. (After enough complaints from Libertarians and the ACLU, this practice was eventually halted.)
Clearly, the private prison industry is a dangerous game. Adding to this danger is the public’s indifference. If a gorilla gets shot at a zoo, society is outraged. If inmates are mistreated, no biggie. They probably deserved it anyway. They’re scum of the earth, most would think. Hence, there’s little to no accountability.
Interestingly, there ARE benefits to being an inmate housed at a private prison. Because the goal is making money, inmates are given more opportunities to have fun. Many CCA inmates are allowed to purchase food from places like KFC, Pizza Hut, or Burger King, for a premium. If 1000 inmates each pay CCA $18 for a $10 pizza, there’s a quick $8000 profit for CCA. Inmates were also allowed to purchase PlayStation videogame systems, and DVD players, as CCA considered this a free babysitter. It made the correctional officers’ jobs easier. One once said, “we like to keep the inmates fat and happy, then they don’t bother us.”
A public prison visiting room might offer chips, candy bars, and soda. A private prison knows they’ll make more money if they also offer vanilla lattes, gourmet ice cream, chef salads from local restaurants, artisan roast beef sandwiches, and so on.
Private prisons also have more leverage. Since they run prisons throughout the country, they have more power when it comes to negotiating a contract with Sysco food service, for instance. Whereas a single state may only be able to buy 10,000 tortillas a month, CCA may be able to buy a million of them, bringing the price way down (and sometimes resulting in a better quality tortilla, too!). CCA was able to provide more cable TV channels, since their contract with DirecTV was for hundreds of prisons, not just a few. They become wholesale buyers while individual state departments of correction are still shopping at retail prices.
Another perk for private prison inmates is that the guards make less moneynand receive fewer benefitsbthan state employees do. Once, a job posting in the Idaho Statesman for a CCA correctional officer stated, “reading and writing a plus.” Applicants to private prison companies are also subject to fewer and less-strict background checks. In fact, guards who apply for a job with the public prison, and get turned down due to something on their background check, will often end up working for less money at the private prison down the road. They care less about keeping their jobs, resulting in more corruption and lackadaisical attitudes from staff, which often benefits inmates. The private prison attitude is, “Do whatever you want, just don’t let me catch you.”