Question: Usually we've thought of jails, prisons and penitentiaries as public institutions, but now I hear that there are more and more privately operated prisons. Is this so? And do you regard it as a positive development?
Response: Yes, it is true. And no, I do not regard it as a positive development. Let me give my reasons why in just a moment. Let me also identify the source of some of what I will say. I acknowledge indebtedness to "Beyond Prisons" by Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray (c. 2006 by the American Friends Service Committee, published by Fortress Press, Minneapolis).
The book offers some statistics that serve to suggest the scope of the issue. "Today, the practice of contracting out the traditional government function of incarceration of adults and juveniles has spread to the majority of states. As of mid-year 2001, the number of private prison and jail beds in the United States had increased to 143,021 from 20,687 in 1992. . . Texas and Oklahoma incarcerated the largest number of inmates in private prisons."
So, then, my promised reasons:
1. Private prisons do not save taxpayers significant sums. One study showed there might be a 1 percent saving, but if they release prisoners who commit more crimes than prisoners coming out of government facilities, the marginal gain is quickly wiped out.
2. Private prisons, if indeed they save money at all, do it largely at the expense of the inmates. They cut educational and treatment programs, and skimp on staff numbers, training, pay and benefits. It is alleged that "some prisoners with HIV/AIDS have been sent back to state-run institutions in order to avoid the high cost of treatment."
3. Private prison motivation is seriously suspect. Magnani and Wray put the case persuasively: "More repeat crime is bad for most people, but for top private-prison executives and shareholders, it means repeat business and more profits. In this way, we are witnessing human beings imprisoned within our penal institutions being turned into commodities. Prison companies are paid by the day and by the "head," so their revenue is tied directly to keeping as many beds filled as possible, for as long as possible, and as often as possible by the same people."
4. There's a danger that special interests will become overly influential. It is understandable that if private prisons work to their benefit, they will be aggressive in promoting them politically. They will, for example, make campaign contributions and lobby legislators. Who might do that? Here's a partial list: "private, for-profit prison corporations; prison food-service and health-care companies; prison construction and architecture firms; bail-bond firms; long-distance telephone companies; prisoner guards' unions; the National Rifle Association; and makers of surveillance equipment, prison-cell hardware and weapons."
5. Private prisons often serve to keep inmates far from home. This has the effect of distancing them from their families, friends, faith communities and lawyers. It imposes great hardships on family members in particular, and probably contributes to tearing families apart.
6. Private prisons diminish accountability. With government, there certainly can be and are bureaucracies very difficult to deal with, but usually there is somebody who can be identified and approached. Private corporations are better equipped to hide. "Beyond Prisons" identifies "the problem of inadequate disclosure of information ... since much of it is considered proprietary information and not required to be disclosed to the public."
7. Private prisons have gained some reputation for disregarding their word. They may "sell" a community on a facility by saying that it will only house minimum security offenders, but once they get their prison up and running, they may bring in hardened criminals.
I find, as you've just seen, private prisons wanting in a variety of respects. If I could counsel voters anywhere, it would be to say, don't do it. Bad deal all the way around, except for the private prison profiteers.
Bill Sanford, a retired United Methodist pastor in Atwater, undertakes to respond to "real questions of real people" every other Saturday. His e-mail address is email@example.com.