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Do we really want `factories behind bars?`

Ethical considerations can’t be dismissed in privatization process

Should there be a profit motive for prisons? Is anyone chilled by proposals to defray taxpayer expenses for prisons by putting more factories behind the bars of privately-owned prisons? What happens when a good worker is up for parole? It seems private prisons could have incentives to retain their prisoners or campaign for “tough on crime” policies that put more people in prison.

David Ingebretsen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi, said the ACLU is opposed to privatization of prisons because they think safety – not profits – should be the primary concern.

“I think the interest of a privately owned prison is making a profit, and they might cut corners in the treatment and quality of confinement of the inmates,” Ingebretsen said. “Keeping someone in confinement is a state function that should be reserved to the state. We have received several complaints, more than several complaints, about conditions and treatment in privately run facilities, and we are investigating those now. We are cooperating with the authorities on that investigation, and perhaps will take some action in the future.”

Ingebretsen said private prisons have a vested interest in increasing the prison population; the private prison lobby has been a supporter of bills that require mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes.

“It is in the interest of private prisons for the prison populations to increase,” he said. “It is not what the state should be encouraging. We should be looking to alternatives to prison incarceration for non-violent offenders.”

The U.S. has the second highest incarceration rate in the world after Russia, and the South has the highest incarceration rate of any region in the U.S. Mississippi’s incarceration rate is the fourth highest in the U.S. Louisiana’s rate in the highest followed by Texas and Arkansas.

Several studies suggest that prison privatization, more popular in the South than the rest of the country, can save money. But one overview of the studies said that most of them are not scientifically valid.

Dr. William G. Archambeault, a professor at the school of social work at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, and Dr. Donald R. Deis Jr., associate professor, LSU department of accounting, did a summary of numerous scientific studies on prison privatization and concluded that most of the studies were flawed.

“During the 1980s, the privatization of prisons was encouraged by national policies in response to a growing national problem of prison crowding and over-crowding,” the LSU professors state. “Privatization of prisons is as controversial today as it was when it emerged. It is noteworthy that after more than a decade of debate, antithetical conclusions are still drawn in the most recent publications.”

For example, a 1994 study concludes that evidence strongly indicates that private prisons are more cost-efficient than public prisons and deliver no worse and often better services to inmates. But a 1995 study reaches the opposite conclusion based on a rationale that privatization does not deal with the causes of crime.

“Many of the cost studies that have been conducted and reported in the privatization literature have been conducted by research teams that have been given unrealistic time constraints when asked to conduct research,” Archambeault and Deis said.

Keeping that in mind is important when looking at conclusions such as the one drawn by the National Center for Policy Action (NCPA) that concluded that prisons can be built and maintained less expensively in the private sector. But NCPA says there is little evidence of profitability in the private prison segment. Major companies in the industry include Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) with a rated capacity of 9,045, Wackenhut Corrections Corp. with 6,109, and Concept Inc. with 4,044. CCA reports that it makes a small profit, but Pricor Inc., of Murfreesboro, Tenn., an early leader in the industry, recently got out of the business after suffering a series of losses.

“The evidence indicates that if there were a formal market to buy, sell and rent prison cells, there would be much less of a problem in funding and efficiently allocating prison space for convicts,” an NCPA Web report states. “And there are numerous – but unexploited – opportunities to reduce the net costs of prisons by creating factories behind bars, having prisoners earn their keep and compensating victims.

“Prisons originally were intended to be self-supporting, and during the l9th century many state prisons ran surpluses, returning excess funds to their state governments. In 1885 three-fourths of prison inmates were involved in productive labor, the majority working in contract and leasing systems. Fifty years later only 44% worked, and almost 90% worked in state rather than private work programs. Today, prison inmates are a huge drain on taxpayer wallets despite the millions of available hours of healthy, prime-age labor they represent.”

An article by Phil Smith written for the Fall 1993 issue of Covert Action Quarterly said that private prisons raise troubling ethical considerations and are a response by private capital to the “opportunities” created by society’s temper tantrum approach to the problem of criminality.

“Private interests have entered the incarceration business in a big way,” Smith writes. “Where there are people detained, there are profits to be made. Imprisonment is an ugly business under any regime, but the prospect of a privatized prison system raises difficult and disturbing questions beyond those associated with a solely state-operated prison system. It has been, after all, a common assumption that the criminalization and punishment of certain behaviors-the deprivation of physical liberty and even of life itself-are not amenable to private sector usurpation.”

Smith points out that prisons for profit are nothing new in U.S. history: in the mid-1800s, penny-pinching state legislatures awarded contracts to private entrepreneurs to operate and manage Louisiana’s first state prison, New York’s Auburn and Sing Sing penitentiaries, and others. These institutions became models for entire sections of the nation where privatized prisons were the norm later in the century.

“These prisons were supposed to turn a profit for the state, or at least pay for themselves,” Smith said. “As the system spread, labor and businesses complained that using unpaid convict labor constituted “unfair” competition. Of equal concern to reformers- but of less weight to politicians – was the issue of prisoner abuse under the private corrections regime. Anecdotal evidence from across the country painted a grim picture.

“A series of investigations of state prisons confirmed the tales of horror and produced public outrage. As with anti-trust legislation and the progressive reforms which followed, public pressure impelled government regulation of private sector abuse. By the turn of the century, concerted opposition from labor, business and reformers forced the state to take direct responsibility for prisons, thus bringing the first era of private prisons to an end.”

Smith said the hard lessons of a 100 years ago have been drowned out by the clamor of free market ideologues. He said again privatization is encroaching ever further on what had been state responsibilities, and prison systems are the target of private interests.

Smith said there is a fundamental ethical question involved in farming out the repressive functions of the state to private interests: Should we, as a society, shift responsibility for the ultimate sanction by which we measure normative behavior to those whose motive is profit?

“The deep philosophical issue is perhaps unan
swerable, but the ramifications are disturbi
ng,” he said. “Imagine a full-fledged corporate public relations campaign d


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