Privatizing Prisons is Dangerous to Our Health

Date: 13 Jan 1998 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Privatizing Prisons is Dangerous to Our Health

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

January 13, 1998 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

“If it has a payroll, privatize it”. So goes the reigning doctrine of the day. The urge to privatize invades all sectors, all services, even when common sense screams out for us to pause and reconsider. One of the most painfully thoughtless examples of this stampede is the privatization of U.S. prisons.

The initial justification for privatizing prisons was that it would save the taxpayers a ton of money. It hasn’t. A 1996 study by the General Accounting Office found “no credible evidence” of such savings.

But money isn’t really the issue here. Liberty and dignity are. Investors in prison corporations expect to double their money every five years. To meet that goal, costs per inmate must be minimized, the jail cells must be fully occupied, and the inmates themselves must be exploited. Private prisons are dangerous for prisoners and for our social fabric.

In 1992, Tennessee turned over operation of one state prison, South Central, to the Correction Corporation of America(CCA), a company less than 20 years old that runs almost half the private prisons in the country. In 1996, state investigators compared the operations of South Central with those of a comparable state-run prison.

The investigators found the costs to the taxpayer of the private prison were about the same as those of a public facility. Since a portion of the private plant’s revenue goes to investors, less is available for prison care and guard training. As a result, as Eric Bates reports in The Nation, the CCA prison has become a dangerous place, The employee turnover rate was twice the level as at state prisons. Violent incidents have been 50 percent higher than in state facilities.

The best way to maximize the revenue generated by each prisoner is to maximize the cell time of that prisoner. A l992 study by the New Mexico corrections department showed that inmates at womenÕs prisons run by CCA lost “good time” at a rate nearly 8 times higher than their male counterparts at a state run lockup. Good time leads to weekend leaves or early release, both of which reduce corporate revenues.

There is another way prison corporations can make money from their wards: by having their slave labor compete with free labor. Sales of prison goods soared from $392 million in 1980 to $1.31 billion in l994. Prison laborers now make clothes, car parts, computer components, shoes, furniture and many other items. Although state prisons pay minimum wage to inmates, Counterpunch magazine notes that private prisons pay as little as 17 cents per hour. The maximum pay scale at a CCA prison in Tennessee is 50 cents an hour for “highly skilled positions”. One Texas state representative could invite Nike to shift its production from Indonesia to Texas by insisting, “We could offer a competitive prison labor.”

Since the profits of private prison corporations are in large part dependent on expansion, the industry uses its increasingly formidable clout to expand the number of private prisons and lobbies to increase the severity of sentencing laws, like the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law in California. Indeed, CCA has become one of the largest contributor of campaign contributions in California. The California corrections officers association is the second most generous PAC in Sacramento.

Ten years ago just five private prisons existed, housing about 2,000 inmates. Today some 140 prisons, housing almost 70,000 inmates, are owned or administered by private companies. The private prison population may increase by 500 percent over the next decade. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners in this country has more than doubled since 1980. Today we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. In 1995, for the first time, more money was spent building new prisons than new universities.

We have created an incentive structure dangerous to those in jails, and that same incentive structure endangers those of us outside of jails as well. The new ownership structure of prisons rewards investors for imprisoning us and keeping us in prison and exploiting us while there. This is a bad idea run amok. It’s time to blow the whistle and declare a moratorium on all further privatization of prisons.

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David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.