Greg Brecht A century ago there were what amounted to “for profit” jails and prisons. Prisoners were rented out to plantations, mines, and to the turpentine and timber industries. There was little oversight. Prisoners had no benefits, work conditions were harsh, with physical coercion normal and fatalities considerable. In some jurisdictions, payments made to lease prisoners provided a substantial amount of local government income. In Alabama in 1898, almost 73% of the state’s revenue came from prisoner leasing.
Profits from leasing prisoners depended on having prisoners to lease. Severe vagrancy laws, generally selectively applied to African American males, assured the supply. Coercion secured work. Death rates were remarkably high.
It was a kind of slavery. The system endured in some places well into the 1900s, and was not abolished until 1941. Fast forward a century. Profit and prisoners are still connected.
A difference is that corporations don’t rent prisoners, they house prisoner. For-profit prisons in the U.S. have largely developed since 1990. About 7,000 prisoners were in private prisons then, a number that grew to 126,000 prisoners in 2010, and remaining steady at that level since. Private prisons now house about 7% of state and 18% of federal prisoners—plus more than 60% of immigration detainees. There has been a slight shrinkage of the percentage of prisoners in for-profit prisons, and several states have stopped using them. It’s worth noting that imprisonment rates in general have steadily fallen since a 2008 peak, falling 11% since then, with overall violent crimes and crimes against property down by 23% since 2008.
For-profit prisons have many problems. Perhaps the most basic is there is little evidence that they actually save taxpayer money. There have been a good many studies, with sharply differing conclusions. There is evidence of profitability. Corrections Corporation of America (since renamed Core Civic) in 2013 reported just over $300 million profits on gross revenues of $1.69 billion That profit was, of course, not passed on to taxpayers. Another serious problem is that for-profit prisons are less safe.
This stems partly from the basic fact that in private prisons, there is a higher inmate-to-personnel ratio. These prisons pay their staff less than state or federal prisons do, and their staffs are not as well trained. The results are prisons that are less safe for guards, less safe for prisoners and less safe for the public.
The rates of violence and assaults on guards in for-profit prisons are considerably higher than in state prisons, and one estimate is that inmate-on-inmate assaults may be 65% higher. Then there is the matter of potential danger to the public from escapees. While escapes from prison are rather rare, there is legitimate concern than private prisons are less secure. For-profit prisons are mostly immune to freedom-of-information and open records laws. Open records laws exist in several states, but do not apply to federal prisons. Getting information about actual prison life in these prisons is difficult. Information that would allow comparisons between the effectiveness of for profit prisons and state and federal prisons is difficult to obtain. There’s another aspect of profit in prisons, one that characterizes federal prisons in particular.
In 1934 Congress authorized creation of UNICOR, federal prison industries. Prisoners are paid 23 cents to $1.15 an hour (higher than prisoners in state or private prisons get). Much of their wages apparently go to paying off fines and other obligations. UNICOR manufactures a wide array of goods, including uniforms for the U.S. military, and overall more than half of UNICOR’s sales go to the Department of Defense.
Its web site sanctimoniously claims “UNICOR offers exceptional services and products that are environmentally friendly and made in America. There’s a sad irony in the fact that uniforms worn by our service people fighting for freedom are made by a quasi-private business exploiting cheap prison labor. Fighting for freedom has a different flavor when you realize uniforms and some equipment is made by prisoners. In theory it is not coerced. Profit and corrections do not mix well.
There is inevitable pressure for private prisons to squeeze profits by cutting expenses for prisoner food, for medical care, for recreation, and to cut wages and benefits for staff as much as possible. Information is difficult to obtain from private prisons, but there is little evidence that they offer any degree of savings. Prisoners working in any prison program aimed at making profit, whether the prison is private or public are in effect coerced labor. All such programs need better oversight and evaluation.