The United States prison system is as unsavory and misguided as David Bowie’s 1972 mullet. With 7 million Americans in jail, on probation or on parole, the “land of the free” is host to nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to a CNN study. Over one in 100 Americans is incarcerated.
And no one seems to care. With two wars raging, economic recovery stagnating and the final season of “Lost” beckoning, Americans have neither time for, nor interest in, prison reform.
But we must. As state governments overburdened with the high costs of increasing prison populations spiral further into debt, many are auctioning off their prisons to private companies. Indeed, The New York Times reported last month that the Arizona state government is planning to sell nine of its 10 prisons to Corrections Corporation of America. While an Arizona state representative said that the recession is making privatization more urgent, it is ultimately only our disinterest in what happens to criminals — the vestige of an antediluvian 1950s belief that maintains a sharp division between good and evil — that permits privatization to continue.
The Wall Street Journal reported that in mid-2007, 7.4 percent of incarcerated adults were held in private prisons. These jails — tightly controlled, technologically advanced and utterly dispiriting — inhibiting prisoners’ ultimate reincorporation into society. For-profit prisons have a disincentive to provide the costly rehabilitative programs that promote education, work skills and self-discipline necessary to keep criminals from repeating their crimes. If we are to reduce recidivism from its present rate — according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.5 percent of released prisoners were rearrested within three years — jails must become places of opportunity and growth, not profit.
Because they are paid per diem for each prisoner, it is in private jails’ interests to lobby for and make campaign contributions to promote policies like mandatory minimum sentencing that protract the time prisoners spend incarcerated.
Private prisons also save money by denying proper health care to inmates. According to a 2005 article in The Times, private prisons are consistently marred by “medical staffs trimmed to the bone, doctors under qualified or out of reach, [and] nurses doing tasks beyond their training.” The results can be fatal. For instance, one prisoner in upstate New York died in a pool of urine after his prison stopped administering nearly all of the 32 pills he’d been taking to combat Parkinsons.
It’s all working according to plan. Private prisons constitute one of the fastest growing industries in the United Sates. On a stock market information site, Seeking Alpha, one blogger recently wrote that private prisons are a “reliable American growth industry.” To me, that statement is analogous to viewing an increase in cancer as a boon for the health care industry.
Proponents of privatization claim that corporate prisons are more efficient than government prisons, and many communities are attracted to them by promises of job creation and tax relief. Yet study upon study has demonstrated that there is little cost-saving in privatization. Two sociology professors at the University of Iowa, for example, have shown that in towns with recently constructed prisons, the rate of increase in economic activity and average household wages is far lower than in non-prison towns. Furthermore, a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Justice states, “Rather than the projected 20-percent savings (touted by the industry,) the average savings from privatization was only about 1 [percent], and most of that was achieved through lower labor costs.”
Capitalism is a wonderful engine for productivity, but that we consistently mistake it for a framework for an equitable society is as dumbfounding as the continued success of “The Real World.” Private prisons are not run in the name of justice, but rather in the name of shareholders. This delegation of government authority to private enterprise is the greatest threat to the Bill of Rights since J. Edgar Hoover. Lenny Bruce was right: “In the Halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”