Private Prisons

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The concept of the prison has existed for more than two thousand years. It probably goes back as far in time as practice of cannibalism, where victims had to wait for their turn in contributing to the chief course in the menu of their captors. Examples of prisons can even be found in the Old Testament when Joseph was incarcerated in Egypt. It was not until the 19th century that a clear shift occurred from corporal punishment to imprisonment. As societies prospered and the industrial revolution began, the formal prison system, as we know it today, developed. Throughout most of the world, the correctional system is administered by the state, and it is considered a key function that the government must fulfill: protect its citizens by guaranteeing the state of law while enforcing the judicial system. More than two decades ago, the United Sates and Great Britain began experimenting with privatization of their prison systems, outsourcing the management to private enterprises. Like most privatization issues, this topic has many supporters from the liberal economic philosophy, as well as many detractors that argue against profit seeking enterprises. The discussion promotes themes such as the ethical dilemma of the private sector “administering punishment”, selecting the correct metrics used to evaluate the performance of private sector versus public sector, disputes of what are “just and fair” services that the inmates are entitled to, among others. In the following essay we aim to bring these topics into light and try to analyze the pros and cons of privatizing the prison system.

Private prisons are one of the fastest growing industries in the security and protection industry. Up until 2003, there were an estimated of 102 private prisons in the U.S. holding more than 100,000 inmates. As of 2008, there were 128,524 inmates held in private prisons, representing 8% of the total 1,610,466 inmates held in all state and federal prisons. Many researchers and academics have argued that although the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, it holds 25% of the world’s prison population. Is this trend directly correlated to the use and promotion of a private prison system? The U.S. has half a million more inmates than China, even though China’s population is five times the size of the US population. Some reasons of China having a lower imprisonment rate can be linked to a lack of reliable statistics (government controlled information), Chinese law/ judicial system are very different to that of the United States and the investment in infrastructure the US has to detect crime. According to the California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

What incentive does the government have to privatize prisons, or encourage public/private alliances? In a time of fiscal constraints, governments have used public/private partnerships in order to provide services that had been formerly delivered by the state. However, although private participation may have been seen as a solution to avoid public failures (i.e. the privatization if highways, garbage /waste management collection, telephone/cellular lines), results can vary according to the sector raising questions concerned with the efficiency of the alliance. The Reagan administration exploited the momentum for privatization and deregulation, giving rise to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Among the incentives the government has for prison privatization is their desperate need to cut budget deficits. For privatization to be economically feasible, the cost/benefit analysis must be positive and provide savings to the government. Likewise, the outright inflow of cash coming in from selling a prison can be very important for local state administrations. According to the disclosure provided by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the reason of why they recently sold one of their prisons for $75 million...
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