I’m generally in favour of moving economic activities out of the government sphere and into the competitive marketplace, but the privatization of prisons is a great example not of free enterprise but of crony capitalism run amok:
Private prisons are antithetical to a free people. Of all the functions a civilized society should relegate to the public sector, it’s abundantly clear incarceration should be at the very top of the list. Jailing individuals is a public cost that a society takes on in order to ensure there are consequences to breaking certain rules that have been deemed dangerous to the happiness and quality of life within a given population. However, the end goal of any civilized culture must be to try to keep these cost as low possible. This should be achieved by having as few people as possible incarcerated, which is most optimally achieved by reducing incidents of criminality within the population. Given incarceration is an undesirable (albeit necessary) part of any society, the idea is certainly not to incentivize increased incarceration by making it extremely profitable. This is a perverse incentive, and one that is strongly encouraged by the private prison industry to the detriment of society.
In the Public Interest describes itself as:
A comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting. It is committed to equipping citizens, public officials, advocacy groups, and researchers with the information, ideas, and other resources they need to ensure that public contracts with private entities are transparent, fair, well-managed, and effectively monitored, and that those contracts meet the long-term needs of communities.
Their report explains how private prison companies insist that states embed “occupancy guarantees” into their contracts with the public sector. They estimate that at least 65% of all private prison contracts have such guarantees, and in some states, like Arizona, the guarantee is a shockingly high 100%. This leads to overcrowding in many instances, and sometimes violent offenders are placed in prisons set up for nonviolent offenses just to fill the quotas. In the event that the beds can’t be filled, the taxpayer makes up the difference to the private prison company. They win no matter what. It’s just more crony capitalism. Below are some highlights from this excellent report.
- 65 percent of the private prison contracts ITPI received and analyzed included occupancy guarantees in the form of quotas or required payments for empty prison cells (a “low-crime tax”). These quotas and low-crime taxes put taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing profits for private prison corporations.
- Occupancy guarantee clauses in private prison contracts range between 80% and 100%, with 90% as the most frequent occupancy guarantee requirement.
- Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia are locked in contracts with the highest occupancy guarantee requirements, with all quotas requiring between 95% and 100% occupancy.
Update: On the topic of prison abuse, there’s an interesting post at Reason talking about the hidden-yet-pervasive practice of locking up children in solitary confinement “for their own protection”:
Solitary confinement was once a punishment reserved for the most-hardened, incorrigible criminals. Today, it is standard practice for tens of thousands of juveniles in prisons and jails across America. Far from being limited to the most violent offenders, solitary confinement is now used against perpetrators of minor crimes and children who are forced to await their trials in total isolation. Often, these stays are prolonged, lasting months or even years at a time.
Widely condemned as cruel and unusual punishment, long-term isolation for juveniles continues because it’s effectively hidden from the public. Research efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition have struggled to uncover even the most basic facts about how the United States punishes its most vulnerable inmates.
How can a practice be both widespread and hidden? State and federal governments have two effective ways to prevent the public from knowing how deep the problem goes.
The first has to do with the way prisons operate. Sealed off from most public scrutiny, and steeped in an insular culture of unaccountability, prisons are, by their very nature, excellent places to keep secrets. Even more concealed are the solitary-confinement cells, described by inmates as “prisons within prisons.” With loose record-keeping and different standards used by different states, it’s almost impossible to gather reliable nation-wide statistics.
The second method is to give the old, horrific punishment a new, unobjectionable name. Make the torture sound friendly, with fewer syllables and pleasant language. This way, even when abuse is discovered, it appears well-intentioned and humane.
So American prisons rarely punish children with prolonged solitary confinement. Instead, they administer seclusion and protective custody. Prison authorities don’t have to admit that “administrative segregation” is used to discipline children. Just the opposite, actually. It’s all being done “for their own protection.”