Public vs Privately Run Prisons Essay

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Private Public Prisons

Critical Analysis of Public vs. Privately Managed Prisons

The management of prisons provides a unique example of the divide of vantage points regarding the role of government in the affairs related to public services. Historically, the management of prisons was traditionally conducted by public officials. However beginning in the 1980s a trend emerged that began replacing publically managed prisons with private sector counter parts. Not only is this trend interesting in terms of the economic factors involved regarding whether the private sector is more efficient and effective, but in this particular instance there are a range of other considerations that stem from the fact that these institutions administer punishments. The administration of punishment is what separates the prison from other types of institutions that are also experimenting with private ownership models such as schools and hospitals. This analysis will consider the trend of prison privatization from the view of different stakeholders involved and the roles they play in this circumstance.


The private prison management model provides several benefits to the companies and investors who are attracted to arrangement primarily for the pursuit of profits. The largest private company is known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and became a publically traded in 1998 on a major stock exchange (Schneider). This corporation is well connected in the states in which it operates and many of the investors in this company are public representatives. From the perspective of the corporation, the inmate population is the basis of their revenue potential. For example, the more prisoners that are sentenced to prison sentence then the more profits are available to the private organization. Rising occupancy rates offer the company more opportunity for financial growth. The opposite can be said as well. If the prison population decreases then this stakeholder could stand the potential to have a reduced revenue stream.

The lobbyists who are employed by the private prison businesses are also a key stakeholder. The historical rate of incarceration has been relatively consistent throughout out the most of the twentieth century. From 1925 when data was first collected to 1973 the rate of incarceration was virtually unchanged in regard to the rate of imprisonment per population (Schneider). The explosion rates of expansion in the prison population are due to public policy changes rather than any drastic changes in the actual crime rates. Thus lobbyists have an important role to play in influencing the revenue potential for their private prison companies. The goal of such lobbyists would be to maximize the total prison population by such means as advocating stricter and harsher sentencing as well as criminalizing as much as the population as feasibly possible.

Prisoners are also a key stakeholder in the system though their voices are commonly overlooked. In the Louisiana prison system, prisoners that are allowed to reside at state run facilities have an average daily price tag of $55 dollars per day in custody while at the private local prisons only spend a little over $24 a day for the care of their prisoners (Chang). The additional expenditures on the prison population go to care of the prisoners and even provide vocational opportunities such as learning to weld, plumb, or even auto mechanics. By contrast, the smaller local prisons do not provide such opportunities and try to save money at every corner. As a result of the different conditions to be found in private and public prisons, the prisoners largely prefer the state run prisons because they offer the prison more humane treatment.

However, it is interesting to note that generally prisoners who populate the local prisons have been convicted to lessor crimes and serve shorter sentences than the prisoners held in the state run facilities. Thus the prisoners that could benefit most from vocational education because they will be released back into the population sooner do not receive such opportunities. Such facts provide the prison activist many points to show the inefficiency that is inherent in the system. The criminal justice system in the United States is often not only inefficient but is also inhumane in regard to the treatment of prisoners. Thus activist who care about factors such as the humane treatment of prisoners have a stake in seeing that the system acts responsibly and humanely in their care of the prisoners and avoids treating them as a commodity that can be used as a source of profitability.

The community and the broader society is undoubtedly the largest stakeholder in the prison system. The purpose of the prison system is to separate individuals from the public for the purpose of creating public safety. The costs to the public to house prisoners are substantial and the public has a stake in making sure that this money is invested appropriately. If prison sentences are served that are longer than their value to the public then public funds are being spent inefficiently. Furthermore, money invested in rehabilitation can also be viewed as an investment to the public. If a prisoner can be rehabilitated and become a functioning member of society then the well-being of the society raises as a whole because these members can effectively contribute to the community.

However, from a functional perspective, if the sentence exceeds the period needed to rehabilitate prisoners who have the desire to change, then this can represent a loss to the public. Furthermore, long sentences that do not provide any rehabilitation opportunities can also be inefficient and sometimes even counterproductive to the public's benefit. Yet private prisons are generally sold to the public as being more efficient and less expensive. The argument in favor of privatization is generally that privatization leads to competition, which in turn leads to cost savings and a number of empirical studies have claimed to support this view although these studies are debatable (Kish and Lipton).

Furthermore these studies often fail to frame the costs associated with incarceration in the public's best interest. For example, even though some private companies might appear to save the public money per prison incarcerated, by not providing these inmates rehabilitation opportunities or proper care and imposing unduly long sentences comes at a cost both economically as well as morally. Often then argument is structured as how to lower costs per prisoner per day while neglecting what is in the public's overall best interest. The role of the state and the public representatives that constitute its leadership should be to maximize the public's best interest rather than cater to special interests from the private sector.

However, there are often many competing interests in the prison system on many different levels. In many cases local enforcement agencies, such as sheriff departments, also serve to benefit from the incarceration of prisoners. In Louisiana the sheriff's departments who operate low-budget and for-profit local prison facilities will use the funds that they receive to purchase equipment or upgrade their vehicle fleets (Chang). Although profits from these operations are not returned to private investors, they can be reinvested in the local community through expanded enforcement efforts which can be perceived as a substantial benefit to the community.

Alternative Models

One of the alternatives to the public and private divide is a hybrid model that represents some combination of both forms of prison management. The critical feature of a public private partnership (P3) s is that they involve an ongoing relationship between a public sector entity and a private sector entity with some degree of joint decision making and financial risk sharing (Vining, Boardman and Poschmann). In a study of several Louisiana prisons, the state-operated facilities were found to have higher-quality in terms of preventing escapes, preventing sexual offenses, using urine testing, and having a wide scope of educational and job-related programs whereas the private facilities were found to have fewer critical incidents, a safer work environment…[continue]

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