Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts recently announced that if she is elected president next year she will abolish private for-profit prisons. Former Vice President Joe Biden has agreed with this proposal. So what’s wrong with private prisons
According to Sen. Warren, “the government has a basic responsibility to keep the people in its care safe — not to use their punishment as an opportunity for profit. That’s why today, I’m proposing my plan to root out once and for all the profit incentives perverting our criminal and immigration systems.”
When I started practicing law, there were no such things as private prisons. But thanks to the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, which led to harsher sentencing policies and higher rates of incarceration, the inmate population skyrocketed beyond the capacity of the nation’s existing prisons.
Between 1970 and 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. grew by 700% (that’s seven times as many prisoners!). Today, the U.S. incarcerates approximately 2.3 million people. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population but a full 25% of its prisoners. And about 130,000 of those prisoners are in private for-profit prisons.
The corporations running private prisons claim that they are saving the government money. In order to lower operating costs, however, these facilities hire fewer employees and pay them less than their government-employed counterparts — an average lower salary of over $5,000 per year. Their employees also receive 58 fewer hours of training. This leads to higher employee turnover and decreased security in the prisons.
A 2016 report from the Justice Department found that private prisons had a 28% higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults. The report also found that medical care for inmates was way below par.
The research showed that private prisons can push down their costs by refusing to accept prisoners with severe illnesses or a history of violence (an option not afforded to state-run institutions). This helps the facility spend less on medical care and security, while these high-cost inmates are forced into state prisons and paid for by taxpayers.
These corporations stand to make more money when more people are sentenced to prison, so they work hard to influence policy and push for harsher sentencing laws. For instance, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the U.S., has spent $17.4 million on lobbying expenditures in the last 10 years and $1.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012.
In 2013, the CCA and another major prison company, the GEO Group, also funded lobbying efforts to stop immigration reform, killing the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in order to keep undocumented immigrants flowing into their facilities.
The ability of private prison companies to capture taxpayer dollars results in handsome rewards for their top executives. According to one source, in 2010 CCA’s President received more than $3.2 million in executive compensation, and GEO’s Chairman received nearly $3.5 million.
In 2016 the Obama administration announced that the Justice Department intended to end its contracts with for-profit prison operators, because it concluded that “the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services” than the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
However, less than a year later President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed this plan. Obama’s policy, he said, “impaired the government’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren also said that she would stop contractors from charging fees for essential services like phone calls, bank transfers, and health care.
“No one should have to pay for their own incarceration,” she said.
Indeed, it does seem morally wrong to exploit mass incarceration for profit.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jamesmanahan.com.