The Issues Surrounding Private Prisons

There are a large number of issues involved in the prisons for profit debate. Ramsay (1996) suggested that when we consider privatization of the criminal justice system, we begin to challenge the fundamental authority vested in the government. The predominant fear is that government power may be used to further private interest rather than public interest. Some critics state that “the debate is wrongly focussed on economics when the issues are ethical and moral: when the state exercises its greatest power, depriving a citizen of liberty, should somebody profit?” (Tyler, 1996, p. A19). Ramsay asked “should a private, for-profit company be responsible for the two most precious possessions of every citizen - their liberty and their life?” (P. A17). Opponents have suggested that it is legally wrong and wrong as a matter of principle to run prisons for profit (Bai, 1997).

The American private companies claim they can run prisons at a lower cost than government. These savings, however, are believed to be the result of fewer staff receiving lower wages (Payne, 1996). As well, in order for a corporation to make a profit, there may be a sacrifice in prison conditions. Ramsay (1996) suggested that staff-inmate ratio and staff training have an important role in determining the cost of institutionalization and the quality of life in prison.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation are two American private companies that aimed at international expansion. The Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tennessee, is considered to be the world market leader in private sector corrections management. The Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, based in Florida, routinely claim they can build and run prisons for 10 to 15 percent less than the public sector. However, in 1996, a government accounting office study found “no credible evidence” of such savings (Shapiro, 1997, p.5). Private prison management is still at an experimental stage and there is no evidence as yet to support assumptions about superior management and cost effectiveness.

According to private prison advocates, when the issue of rehabilitation is in focus, the public prison system is said to perform this job poorly. A private institution, on the other hand, has “a direct financial conflict in doing so” (Payne, 1996a, p. 86). Notable critics of privatization such as Ira Robbins (as cited in Thomas, 1992), a law professor at American University, argued that the private sector is more interested in doing well financially than doing good correctional work. Interestingly, the private companies target minimum-security inmates and inmates who have good behaviour, thereby increasing their likelihood of looking like they are successful at rehabilitation.

The most controversial and interesting issues raised by private prisons concern the quality of service. Quality covers such things as: order in prisons, security of prisoners, escapes, staff conduct toward prisoners and violence by guards and between prisoners, just to name a few. It also includes amenities that prisoners receive such as rehabilitation opportunities (Hart, Shleifier, & Vishny, 1997). Shapiro (1997) suggested that many critics are still shaking their heads concerning the prison wing in Brazoria County, Texas, where a 1996 video showed the Brazorian inmates being forced to crawl like hogs with their pants around the ankles. “There are also electric cattle prods, beatings and other efficiency measures” (p. 5). With such incidences in mind, opponents are quick to point out that government must remain liable for any civil rights violations against inmates. This leaves a big question of how a private system should be monitored and whether government can, in fact, reduce their liability insurance costs, which was claimed as an advantage of private prisons.