Most states and the federal government have greatly increased the number of convicted offenders sentenced to prison. Legislators added more offenses to those requiring prison time and increased the length of prison sentences. “Getting tough on crime” through more incarceration results in overcrowded prisons. Despite a boom in new prison construction in the last 35 years, many states and the federal government have turned to the private sector for more prison beds. Private, for-profit prisons are a booming industry.
Information from “The Sentencing Project” shows that private prisons in the United States incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. The number of people housed in private prisons has increased 47% since 2000.
States vary in the use of private correctional facilities. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities, and Texas incarcerated the largest number (13,692) of people in private facilities. Nearly half of the states (23) do not employ any for-profit prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 27 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group and Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).
The 47% increase in private prison commitments compares with just a 9% increase in the overall prison population increase in the U.S. In six states, the private prison population has more than doubled. The federal prison system showed a 120% increase in use of private prisons since 2000, reaching 34,159 people in private facilities in 2016. Border patrols have incarcerated 26,249 immigrants –73% of those detained—in privately-run facilities in 2017. The private immigrant population grew 442% since 2002. (See the sentencingproject.org ).
Criminologists, correctional experts, and administrators of many state departments of corrections are critical of private prison corporations and refuse to contract for their services. Major arguments against private prisons are that they are not less expensive than state institutions; lower qualifications and salaries for line staff; and any cost reduction is by reducing corrections staff which jeopardizes adequate supervision and safety.
Churches Call for Abolishing Private Prisons
The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has studied the operation and overall costs of private prisons in America. Based on the findings the General Assembly meetings of the denomination (in 2003 and in 2012) passed resolutions to abolish state and federal contracts with private prison corporations.
The denomination’s recommendations against private prisons include:
- Ban interstate commerce in private prisoners.
- Ban construction of speculation prisons.
- Ban use of private prisons to house juveniles.
- Prevent renewal of current state, county, and city contracts with for-profit private prison corporations.
The church’s arguments against private prisons are that:
- Having the private sector own and operate jails and prisons is an unfair monopoly and therefore undemocratic.
- In a democratic society, there are certain functions that should never be operated for profit.
- Contracting with the private sector for jails and prisons is no more appropriate than for operating police departments or the court system.
The church’s recommendation for abolishing the use of private jails and prisons argues that some things that should never be bought and sold in the marketplace include the powers to:
- Take away another person’s freedom.
- Separate them from other human beings.
- Prevent them from communicating in any way with others.
- The use of physical force against them, up to and including deadly force.
- These are the powers invested in those who operate jails and prisons, whether public or private.
Prison administrators and wardens of nearly half of the states appear to agree with the church’s arguments, refusing to contract with private prison corporations for incarcerating convicted offenders.
Besides ethical arguments, what other reasons might be turning many states from accepting the lobbying efforts and offers of private prison corporations? We will explore some of the untold stories of private prisons, hidden costs, and documented abuses of power in our next weblog. Stay tuned!