Move over, airlines and healthcare, and let's shine the spotlight on a more unusual profitable industry: private prisons. The Economist came out with an article on July 26th that asks whether private prisons are the next step in dealing with overcrowded prisons. Their business is booming: it’s cheaper for states to hire out prison accommodations and prisoners get a better prison environment. Wait, what exactly are private prisons?
Private prisons are just like any other private institution: they’re a little nicer, a little more efficient, a little less bogged down by bureaucracy, and they’re here to add a touch of quality to the dregs of the American prison system. The Economist article expounds on the privately owned Corrections Corporation of America (CCA): “Their facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, is light and air-conditioned where St Clair [in Alabama] is dark and steaming. It is less crowded and has a freshly-painted feel; St Clair is shabby and peeling. The sports facilities are better.” To the authorities of some hopelessly overcrowded state and federal prisons, private facilities are a godsend. The New York Times writes that Alabama officials, threatened by possible court citations of contempt, desperately turned to CCA. Within 30 days, CCA had found a place for 1,500 inmates. Sounds amazing, right?
There are pitfalls. For one, CCA builds its prisons wherever it’s cheapest, and prisoners get sent wherever there is space. This means that many inmates get shipped out to different states for up to years at a time, which means they don’t get to see their families. Whether or not this tugs at your heartstrings, this has a real effect on prisoner behavior. A study looked at a similar (but not exactly the same) situation involving prisoners who are sent to prisons 100 miles away or more from their homes. In essence, they’re too far away for their families to take advantage of visitation rights, and according to the Times, studies show that ex-offenders without family contact violate parole and commit offenses at higher rates than those with family bonds. Take for example Prison Pete, who claims to be an inmate in New York state prison. Since he doesn’t have regular access to the Internet, he sends letters to a friend who types them into a blog. (Disclaimer: who knows if this is carefully crafted fiction or a true story? He writes anonymously; after all, this is the Internet!) Pete always has kind words for his parents who reach through the bars to support him, be it with food or unconditional love. That kind of love is hard to get across state borders and especially across the ocean (for exported Hawaiian inmates).
There’s no easy answer to the question. Someone might want to come up with an overall cost/benefit analysis—is it worth it to send prisoners to private prisons and save about 5-15 percent per inmate, but with increased chances of recidivism? We may end up spending more tax money if the inmate makes a U-turn back to prison. But for now, private prisons seem to be a better option than spending millions for more jailhouses. Again folks, think along the lines of sensible rehabilitation!