3 Reasons We Should Not Privatize Prisons

Posted on March 27, 2012 by


Inside a privatized correctional facility. Image: CrimeDime.com

There is a popular, if unexamined, belief that privatizing government functions is a good idea. People think that private companies with a profit motive will be less wasteful and more efficient, without sacrificing quality of services. This argument ties into a uniquely American mindset, a sincere desire to root for David (in this case, business) over the Goliath (in this case, government).

Americans love a can-do mentality. They love innovation, and they love the rags-to-riches ethos that supports the myth of “you can do anything you want to do as long as you try hard enough.” Privatization of government functions yanks at the old boot straps of the American heart, pulling up ancient resentments of the British class system from which we ripped ourselves so forcefully.

The empirical evidence on privatization of any government function is mixed at best. At worst, it demonstrates little by way of money-saving, and much by way of sacrifice in quality. But prisons hold a unique position in the privatization battles. Here are three reasons not to privatize correctional services.

1. The right to punish belongs only to the state.  The criminal justice system is the process by which we legally deprive human beings of their otherwise guaranteed rights. We deprive not just our own citizens, but anyone who is sentenced of basic rights and freedoms such as, oh, say, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When someone other than the state tries to deprive someone of these freedoms and rights, we charge them with crimes. We expressly forbid vigilantism. The right to punish should not be handed to any other person or entity.

2. There is a financial incentive to do a bad job. The more effective a correctional facility is, the less need we have of its services. Inmates who are treated well, who receive appropriate services such as education, job training, addiction treatment, anger management, and health care are less likely to reoffend. Which means they are less likely to be reconvicted. Resentenced. Reincarcerated. We will never reach a point of not needing prisons, but better correctional policies and administration should result in a reduction of need. This is disastrous from the point of view of a profit-motivated organization.

3. The path to profit is to treat human beings badly. Prisons are about two things: custody and care. Custody, keeping inmates physical bodies under control, comes first. Buildings must be secure, safety is of paramount importance. No one wants to cut corners on the custodial aspects of a prison. But care is another story. Care is where the profit margins lie. Once a facility is built securely, the cost associated with custody dwindle rapidly. Care is the only part of the budget that has room to move, and thus is the cost center that is sacrificed in the name of profit.

I know. Prisons are about both punishment and rehabilitation, and many find the idea of treating prisoners humanely to be repugnant. But I cannot say this enough: the worse we treat prisoners, the more future victims we create.

If you truly care about reducing crime overall, you have to embrace the idea that we can only reduce recidivism by treating offenders like human beings who, having paid a debt to society, must be given as much support as possible to successfully reintegrate with society. Privatizing prisons undermines the very goals and moral foundation of the criminal justice system.