1. danger of excessive dependence on a

1.    Prisons
profit motive and accountability

Dostoevsky argued that a society should be judged not by
how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals. If
Dostoevsky is right, and we are to judge society on this basis, information
must be made publicly available in order to form a picture of our treatment of
citizens we deem to be criminals1. This picture is essential to ensure that
governments, acting on behalf of society, are held accountable for decisions
regarding the treatment of criminals and responses to criminal behaviour.

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The rise of the private prison, has added to the public
accountability issues within the prison sector. Although businesses have been
involved in the administration of punishment throughout history, the shift to
state administered punishment was heralded as a way to ensure equity, justice
and humanity within the penal system (Morris and Rothman, 1995)2.

Over the last twenty years this has changed significantly
with the emergence of a contemporary, private, ‘for-profit’ prison industry,
providing diverse services, including catering, medical care, employment
training, court escort services, security, and prisons for juveniles, people on
remand, illegal immigrants, and adult offenders.

Generally, it has been argued that outsourcing and
privatisation have benefits that include the ability for the government to shop
around for vendors in order to choose the quality and quantity of services
required. It has also been suggested that outsourcing will invite competition,
giving the government choices between innovative, lean, less expensive service
providers (Dixon et al, 1996; Shaoul, 1997; Taylor & Warrack, 1998).

There are a number of corresponding concerns, including
the fact that competition may not be easily stimulated or may not suit the
industry in question; there is a danger of excessive dependence on a particular
service provider; and perhaps most importantly, the full costs of the process
are rarely calculated (for example, the cost to the community of eroding job
security; the retraction of state obligations to its citizens; and the cost of
reversing the decision if it turns out to be a bad one) (Gormley, 1991; Butler,

Incarceration has a variety of different public policy
objectives and justifications (such as deterrence, reform, incapacitation
and/or classification) and imprisonment also has unintended consequences and
effects a person in more ways than those anticipated by the State. Amongst
other things, it means that a member of society is restrained and loses their
freedom; their life path is interrupted; their family and social relations become
difficult to maintain; there is a reduction in civil liberties such as privacy;
they are held in places that are frequently charged with an atmosphere of
distrust and violence; they are often surrounded by drugs and drug deals; and
their lives often become lonely, idle and unstimulated

Fundamentally, a society holds a ‘criminal’ accountable
for their actions and that person has a corresponding right to an accountable
execution of the objectives of their sentence. This is predicated on the
assumption that all of these can be negotiated meaningfully and democratically.
It is also complicated by the fact that some private entities can now profit
from incarceration and that these entities have a vested interest in the
maintenance, if not the expansion of incarceration as a response to criminal
behaviour. It has led some to ask whether there are “services that are
“inherently governmental” and should thus be quarantined from the process of
contracting out?” (Schoombee, 1997, p.141)

2.    Private
prisons and mass incarceration

Although mass incarceration strains state budgets while
rewarding for-profit companies, certain private prison supporters and
policymakers have put forth privatization as part of a solution to budgetary
crises confronting states across the nation.92 Similarly, leading private
prison companies promise to provide cost-effective alternatives to
governmentally operated prisons.  CCA
asserts on its website, “with state and federal budgets stretched and public
needs always competing with limited dollars, legislators are faced with
critical choices on where to spend scarce resources. Creating a partnership
with CCA to construct, manage and maintain their prisons allows governments to
care for hardworking taxpayer dollars, while protecting critical priorities
like education and health care.”93 Other private prison companies assert that
privatization saves money, or is otherwise cost-effective. GEO, for example,
claims to provide “20% to 30% cost savings” in facility development, and “10%
to 20% cost savings” in facility management.94

This chapter demonstrates that the supposed benefits
(economic and otherwise) of private prisons often fail to withstand scrutiny.
The view that private prisons save taxpayer money, fuel local economies, and
adequately protect the safety of prisoners helps to feed mass incarceration by
making privatization appear to be an attractive alternative to reducing prison
populations. But the evidence for such benefits is mixed at best. Not only may
privatization fail to save taxpayer money, but private prison companies, as
for-profit institutions, are strongly incentivized to cut corners and thereby
maximize profits, which may come at the expense of public safety and the well
being of prisoners.95

As CCA stated in its 2010 Annual Report, under the
heading “Risks Related to Our Business and Industry,” “legislation has been
proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some
nonviolent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on
good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some
offenders on probation … who would otherwise be incarcerated.”97 The danger
currently posed by the private prison industry is that legislators, operating
under the highly questionable view that private prisons save money, will turn
to privatization as a fiscal solution, rather than cutting corrections spending
by reducing the number of people behind bars.

Accordingly, an analysis of the key benefits supposedly
associated with private prisons—that forprofit prisons save money, stimulate
economic growth, and adequately ensure the well-being of prisoners—is
especially relevant in the present moment. Such claims are examined below.

Qualoty of confinment

of health care delivery suggest no real advantage or disadvantage from private
management. In
contrast, each of the three publicly managed systems who reported data on
skills training outperformed privately managed prisons. There were 45 outcome
indicators overall. Of these, 21 (47%) favored privately managed prisons, 20
(44%) favored publicly managed prisons, and 4 (9%) favored neither. Of the 10
summaries of these 45 values, 50% favored publicly managed prisons, 30% favored
privately managed systems, and 20% showed no difference.

conclusion is that prison privatization provides neither a clear advantage nor
disadvantage compared with publicly managed prisons. Neither cost savings nor
improvements in quality of confinement are guaranteed through privatization.

Supposed cost savings

In 2010, a Legal Review Committee, established by
Monmouth County, New Jersey, to study the legal implications of privatizing the
Monmouth County Correctional Institution, reported: “Many studies have been
done regarding prison privatization, most of which conclude that the legal
implications associated therewith make privatization unattractive.
Specifically, increased liability to the public entity, increased reported
escapes, private prison guards who are not trained to the level of law
enforcement officers, increased number of lawsuits and increased violence and
disturbances at correction facilities … Most objective cost studies show little
or no cost savings to taxpayers coupled with an increased safety risk …
Privatization does not appear to be a viable option for Monmouth County’s
maximum security facility due to the potential increased risk of liability and
safety risks without proof of cost savings.”103


A 2007 meta-analysis of previous privatization studies by
University of Utah researchers found: “Cost savings from privatization are not
guaranteed and quality of services is not improved.  Across the board effect sizes were small, so
small that the value of moving to a privately managed system is

While other studies have reported cost savings,109 the
independence of at least one researcher who supported private prisons has come
into question based on his links to private prison companies.  Charles Thomas, a University of Florida
academic and one of the most outspoken proponents of private prisons,
reportedly received $3 million in consulting fees from private prison companies
or related entities.110 Although a potential conflict of interest does not
necessarily imply flawed research, the Florida Commission on Ethics stated that
Thomas’ “contractual relationships with private corrections companies, or
companies related to the private corrections industry … conflicted with his
duty to objectively evaluate the corrections industry through his research with
the University of Florida.”111

Pratt and
Maahs found that, at first glance, privately managed prisons appeared more
cost-effective than publicly managed sites, on average US$ 2.45 less per
prisoner per day. However, these authors also found that the best predictors of
cost were number of inmates served (r = ?.345), age of the physical facility (r
= .511), and security level (r = .347). after considering these factors, locus
of management (i.e., private or public) did not significantly predict
cost-effectiveness (p > .05). In their concluding remarks, the authors state
“although specific privatization policy alternatives may result in modest cost
savings . . . relinquishing the responsibility of managing prisons to the
private sphere is unlikely to alleviate much of the financial burden on state
correctional budgets”

Thus 50% of
the time, privately managed prisons showed a financial advantage over publicly
managed prisons, while publicly managed prisons showed an advantage only 25% of
the time. The average cost savings across all eight studies was 2.2% (SD =
11.5%) favoring privately managed prisons.


Scant economic benefit for local communities

Aside from supposed cost benefits, the leading for-profit
private prison companies assert that private prisons spur economic growth for
local communities. The GEO Group’s website, for example, claims that GEO
prisons provide local communities with an “influx of capital that has the
ability to stimulate the economic makeup of a community through consumer
spending, new business enterprises, and capital improvements.”112 Similarly,
CCA promises that “our presence means more revenue for counties, towns,
cities and states. Our facilities mean more local jobs for hardworking

The view that prisons substantially promote economic
development is highly questionable. According to certain studies, new prisons
appear to bring few, if any, economic benefits. A 2010 study by researchers at
Washington State University and Ohio State University examined data on “all
existing and new prisons in the United States since 1960,” reporting findings
that “cast doubt on claims that prison building is worth the investment for
struggling rural communities.”114  A 2005
nationwide study reported similar results.115 Yet another empirical study,
which was conducted by an advocacy organization and which focused on rural
counties in New York State, found that although new prisons create jobs, “these
benefits do not aid the host county to any substantial degree since local
residents are not necessarily in a position to be hired for these jobs.” 116

Furthermore, private prisons can impose costs on local
communities by obtaining subsidies, enjoying property tax exemptions, and
receiving municipal services (such as water and sewer services) that cost
taxpayer money.117 In 2001, a report by one advocacy group stated that nearly
three quarters of large private prisons received development subsidies from the

Limited incentives to curb recidivism and
prison violence

Leading private prison companies assert that for-profit
facilities protect the safety of prisoners. Management & Training Corporation
states on its website: “Our staff training, operational policies, and systems
of accountability emphasize not only safe and secure operations, but
rehabilitation and protection of human rights.”146 Similarly, GEO asserts, “We
are committed to establishing and maintaining a workplace that is safe, secure
and humane, not only for our trained and experienced professionals, but for the
offenders entrusted in our care.”147 CCA states: “On the frontline level, being
a member of the security team at CCA means more than performing routine checks
on a shift; it means being an ambassador of safety and security for inmates,
the surrounding community and fellow staff.”148

As detailed below, however, certain research suggests
that for-profit prisons may be associated with heightened levels of violence
toward prisoners. The perverse incentives to maximize profits and cut
corners—even at the expense of safety and decent conditions—may contribute to
an unacceptable level of danger in private prisons.

Although there is some evidence to the contrary,149
several studies suggest that prisoners in private facilities may face greater
threats to safety than those in governmentally operated prisons. One study
concluded that “the private sector is a more dangerous place to be incarcerated,”
and reported, based upon an analysis of national data, that “the private sector
experienced more than twice the number of assaults against inmates than did the
public sector.”150 Similarly, a United States Department of Justice study,
based on a national survey of private prisons, reported that “the privately
operated facilities have a much higher rate of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff
assaults and other disturbances” than publicly operated facilities, when
institutions of similar security levels are compared.151 Another study
reported: “The survey data presented in this paper show that privately
operated prisons … had much higher escape rates from secure institutions, and
much higher random drug hit rates than the Bureau of Prisons.”152

Another Department of Justice study, which compared a
private federal prison, Taft Correctional Institution (“TCI”), with certain
other institutions operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”), reported
lower levels of violent inmate misconduct at the private prison but also stated
that the private prison “contributed to a higher probability that inmates would
be involved in overall misconduct for much of the time period than any of the
governmental comparison prisons.”153 
The study also stated:

TCI consistently demonstrated lower levels of performance
on the performance measures examined here, primarily inmate misconduct and
illegal drug use. This relationship holds both when TCI is compared to the
three BOP comparison prisons as well as when TCI is compared to other BOP
low-security prisons. TCI experienced three significant incidents that did not
occur at the BOP comparison prisons. TCI experienced two escapes … and one
large-scale disturbance in which at least 1,000 inmates refused to return to their
cells. These instances endangered both public safety and institution safety.154


Just three weeks before the release of this report,
prisoner fights in several locations throughout a private prison in Oklahoma
left 46 prisoners injured and required 16 inmates to be sent to the hospital,
some of them in critical condition.155

In August 2011, according to a Department of Justice
press release: “former Contract Security Officer Edwin Rodriguez, 30, pleaded
guilty to engaging in sexual abuse of a female detainee under his supervision
and control. The sexual act occurred inside the Willacy Detention Center while
Rodriguez was on duty.”159

Flawed incentives and private prison violance

Dangers in private prisons may reflect, at least in part,
financial incentives to minimize costs and thereby maximize profits. Indeed,
according to one scholar, “there is a much stronger incentive for private
prison companies to save costs, not for the public’s benefit, but for their
own profit.”178 In particular, low pay for private prison staff may result in a
higher level of staff turnover. As stated in one study, “private operators are
running prisons with workers who are generally paid less than their
public-sector counterparts,” and “privately operated prisons … had much higher
separation rates for correctional officers.”179 Similarly, according to another
study, private prisons, as compared to public facilities, pay correctional
officers less and face a higher rate of staff turnover.180 

These shortcuts potentially create grave risks, as pay
and turnover may “contribute to the higher levels of violence seen in the
private sector.” 181 More specifically: 

Privately operated prisons appear to have systemic
problems in maintaining secure facilities …. Advocates of prison privatization
have argued that private prisons can pay workers less, offer fewer benefits,
and still deliver a product that is as good or better than that provided by the
public sector. The evidence to date contradicts such an encompassing

The same study continued: “the data presented here
indicate that less costly workers in private prisons have not produced an
acceptable level of public safety or inmate care to date.”183

managed prisons tended to perform better with regard to public safety. Five of
the six studies that presented data in this area favored public prisons,
although the effect sizes are small.

Private prisons and rehabilitation

Private prison operators have limited incentives to
reduce future crime. As one scholar notes, “it very well may be that
companies operating private prisons … will be so concerned with cost cutting,
profit making, and satisfying their stockholders that some major goals of the
institution will be neglected or overlooked. For instance, some aspects of
rehabilitation … may be affected.”197

While the empirical evidence is mixed, individuals
released from private prisons may be more likely to commit future crimes than
people released from publicly operated prisons. According to a 2008 study of Oklahoma
prisons, “private prison inmate groups had a greater hazard of recidivism than
did public inmate groups.”199

Not only is there little incentive to spend money on
rehabilitation, but crime, at least in one sense, is good for private prisons:
the more crimes that are committed, and the more individuals who are sent to
prison, the more money private prisons stand to make. Increased recidivism
gives private prisons a steady clientele but has negative consequences for the
public—more crime, and more money spent re-incarcerating former prisoners.

Although supporters of for-profit prisons contend that
such institutions provide an answer to bloated state corrections budgets, these
facilities offer no solution—financial or otherwise—to the mass incarceration crisis
confronting state governments. The evidence that private prisons provide
demonstrable financial savings is mixed at best, and prisons do not appear to
provide economic benefits to local communities. Private prisons suffer from
flawed incentives and may face heightened levels of violence.


Given these enormous potential drawbacks, why have
private prison companies been so successful in persuading policymakers to build
more and more private prisons? Much of the answer lies in shrewd—and sometimes
cynical—efforts used by some members of the private prison industry to curry
political favor. The following chapter explores this topic.

In addition to lobbying, for-profit prison companies also
spend vast sums of money on campaign contributions. Since 2000, the leading
private prison companies—CCA, GEO, and Cornell (which has since been absorbed
by GEO in a merger)—have contributed over six million dollars to candidates for
state office and over $800,000 to candidates for federal office, according to
the Justice Policy Institute.245 The organization further reports that in 2010
alone, these companies contributed over two million dollars to state political
campaigns, with a large fraction of the money funneled to state party