Photograph by HalfDark/Corbis

Photograph by HalfDark/Corbis

Our prison system is based on the idea that there’s value in rehabilitating inmates so they don’t fall back into lives of crime. So why are we turning prisons over to private companies? For them, more inmates means more money.

By Michael Laufer, PhD


It’s easy to not think about prisons. They’re mostly tucked away far from metropolitan areas, intentionally out of sight and out of mind, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives. They’re designed that way. There are, of course, a few exceptions: San Quentin, with its beautiful location on the San Francisco Bay, or New York City’s Rikers Island, which is hard to miss if you fly into LaGuardia Airport.

But your average American would be hard-pressed to name half a dozen of the many hundreds of prisons in the United States, so why would anyone care that more than 150 of them are privately run? Well, as the country that incarcerates more people than any other worldwide, where roughly 1 out of every 100 adults are incarcerated, we should be paying attention to how our prisons are managed.

In 1980, the United States had 329,800 people incarcerated; today it’s almost two and a half million. As any good capitalist will tell you, if you see something increasing this much in size, there’s money to be made. Apparently that was the thinking at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which decided to work to make the prison system into a private industry starting in 1983, and at the GEO Group, which followed suit the following year.

The role of the government in the lives of citizens is the main dividing line between the two political parties in America, the subject of debate about everything from health care to the postal system. Looking at it from either side, two questions drive those discussions: Does your option cost taxpayers less, and does it do the job better? In the case of prisons being privatized, the answers are: No, and it depends what you’re trying to accomplish.

Photograph by Charles Reed/AP Photo

Photograph by Charles Reed/AP Photo

Like any business, the private prison industry likes to say that it can do the job for less, and companies demonstrate this by showing they incarcerate prisoners at lower cost than the traditional state-run facilities. But—again, like any business—creative accounting obscures the real costs. Yes, the private prisons do spend less on each meal for each prisoner, and yes, they do manage to pay their staff less, and their medical costs are minuscule—but how do they manage to do that?

They take only the prisoners who cost the least to incarcerate: no one with preexisting medical conditions or who is elderly. The food they serve is substandard and the portions are smaller, and if a prisoner succumbs to scurvy or anemia, they are either left untreated or transferred back to the state-run prison, which foots the medical bill. Furthermore, by all estimations, despite these cost-cutting measures, private prisons do not save money—even without considering the hidden costs to taxpayers.

On top of that, private prisons write into their contracts quota clauses guaranteeing that their facilities will have a certain percentage of occupancy (90 percent being standard, and in many places it’s 100 percent), forcing the state to export inmates from the publicly run facilities to fulfill that quota or pay for the empty bunks. In places where all the local prisons are privatized, the quota problem is compounded: If there aren’t enough convictions to fill the prison, the state is still forced to pay for the empty cells. And none of this should come as a surprise to people who run prisons, as the use of such clauses came after the infamous “Kids for Cash” scandal in Pennsylvania, where judges were given kick-backs for incarcerating more juveniles and increasing the inmate populations in private juvenile facilities.

If we develop a longer view of what it might cost us to incarcerate people, the picture gets more bleak. Adding in the parole and probation processes, more than three percent of the nation is in the correctional system. All that has to be paid for by the state, and of course crime itself costs taxpayers money. As a nation we have an economic incentive to keep people out of prison, and keep them from falling back into lives of crime and landing back in prison.

Private prisons, on the other hand, have incentives to fail. More prisoners means more money. They have absolutely no vested interest in rehabilitation or in the reduction of crime in society. Every prisoner rehabilitated is a lost opportunity to make money. Since a private institution cannot continue to exist without turning a profit, all other goals are subordinate to that.

When we turn to the question of which prisons do the job better, we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the “correctional system” is: to rehabilitate or to punish? If punishment is the only purpose that the prison system is serving, then privatization is a natural solution. We, members of society who are not incarcerated, can rest easy knowing that the conditions in prisons, and the rates of recidivism, are not our concern. The convicted person is responsible for his or her rehabilitation, and if people are determined to continue to do things that land them in prison, we might as well get rich off it, right? CCA’s stock price rose from less than a dollar per share in 2000 to $38 a share in 2014. The GEO Group was at slightly more than $2 a share in 2000 and grew to more than $41 per share in 2014. Clearly, there’s money in this business.

Whose money is it, though? Those are taxpayer dollars, and they’re being shuttled to a private corporation to provide a service that the state has deemed necessary for its survival and betterment. But neither the public system of voter pressure nor the private system of voting with one’s pocketbook are in place to ensure that these prisons are performing as they should.

In a recent incident at Rikers Island, a 56-year-old veteran who had been arrested for trespassing died of heatstroke because his cell was overheated and his repeated pleas for medical attention were ignored. The news was met with public outrage, the mayor called the event “shocking and troubling,” the warden in charge of that wing was demoted, and the officer who’d been on duty was suspended without pay.

If that had occurred in a private prison, there would have been no such repercussions. It would have been the cost of doing business. On top of that, it’s not like prisons have to worry about losing business because of poor customer service.

And although life in prison of any kind is no picnic, the disasters that have happened in private prisons are so atrocious, they sound like scenes from exploitation films (see sidebar). Take the private prison in Idaho that ended up with the nickname Gladiator School. The administration cut the staff down to a skeleton crew and handed security over to the most powerful gang. Eventually, things deteriorated to the point where the guards had to ask permission from the gang leaders before anything was done, even something as basic as moving a new inmate to an empty cell. So many lawsuits were filed against CCA by prisoners that the FBI got involved in the resulting investigation, and the prison was shut down.

In a private prison in Texas in 2012, a pregnant woman was refused medical treatment and was forced to give birth alone on a toilet. Her newborn died four days later.

And these are merely some horrific instances we know about. Since these prisons are run by private companies, what goes on inside them is not public record—until the atrocities are so great that they enter the court system. But don’t let all this get you down. Prisons are tucked out of the way, so you don’t have to think about them. They’re designed that way.

Tales From the Dark Side

This is just a small sampling of stories about private prisons from the past decade.

In 2007, a private prison in Florida mistakenly released nine inmates. In what can only be described as a best-case scenario, when the inmates were contacted, they all returned willingly. At the other extreme, men who broke out of a private prison with inadequate security kidnapped and murdered an elderly couple while making their escape.

Also in 2007, at a private prison in North Carolina with nonexistent medical treatment for the inmates, one prisoner’s face split open after an infected tooth went untreated.

At a private prison in Ohio in 2012, inmates were defecating in bags because they did not have access to running water.

At a women’s prison in Kentucky, between 2006 and 2009, an attic above the gym was used by guards and the prison chaplain to repeatedly rape inmates. The chaplain referred to the hideout as “the love nest.”

In 2009 in Washington state, 92 guards were hired without background checks of any kind. That same year in Oklahoma, a private prison hired a convicted murderer as a counselor; he later raped an inmate.

The list goes on, with deaths due to untreated illnesses, escapes due to negligence, abuses by guards, and riots being all too common.

The author is a mathematician who has taught college students in prisons in New York and California.

From the March 2015 issue of Penthouse