No More Private Prisons in America

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Holding prison bars

The US Department of Justice recently announced plans to phase out private prisons, an initiative now signed-off on by outgoing President Barack Obama.

The move means that current private federal prison contracts will not be renewed after they expire, and substantial limitations will be placed upon private prison operators.

The decision comes after years of criticisms of private prisons, including their failure to deliver on inmate and officer safety, to provide rehabilitation programs to inmates, to reduce reoffending rates and to produce economic and social benefits to the community.

But despite strong evidence against privatising prisons, the NSW government is set to embrace big business with open arms.

US prison population

In 2015, the United States accounted for 25 percent of the world’s inmates, despite having just 5 percent of the world’s population. In total, one in every 100 adults is behind bars in the US, costing the economy more than US $60 billion per year. The reoffending rate is astronomical, with two-thirds of inmates returning to prison within 2 years.

Fifteen percent of all inmates, or nearly 30,000, are housed in 13 private prisons. These profit motivated facilities have failed to measure up to state-run centres in almost every important respect.

Problems with private prisons

The decision to phase out the use of private prisons follows a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general criticising security standards, rehabilitation initiatives and reoffending rates. “Time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said, adding that private prisons have much higher rates of assaults and contraband.

A recent report found that instances of inmate-on-inmate assaults were 28% higher in private prisons than government-run facilities, along with more contraband found. Eight times as many mobile phones were discovered during routine searches in private prisons than government-run centres.

Keep people behind bars and make more money

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism of private prisons is that there is no economic incentive to rehabilitate prison; in fact, the opposite is true – the longer people remain behind bars, the more money the prison companies make.

This acts as a disincentive for providing vocational, mental health, drug and alcohol programs to inmates, participation in which can help lead to early release.

The cost of providing such programs is a disincentive in itself, and the US experience is that inmates in private prisons are less likely to undertake rehabilitation programs and qualify for early release, and more likely to commit crimes after being released.

It is also in the interest of private prison companies for more and harsher laws to be passed. Indeed in 2012, Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the US, admitted that drug and sentencing reforms would hurt its business. Among other things, the proposed reforms included reducing sentences for non-violent drug offences and diluting mandatory sentencing laws.

In 2005, the same company’s annual report stated:

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws”.

Cost efficiency

In terms of the cost of running private prisons, a study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the savings promised by private operators “have simply not materialized”.

And a report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that, when increased rates of violence and reoffending are taken into account, private prisons are actually far more costly to society than those run by the state.

Australian approach

In the face of these findings, the NSW government has announced it will allow private operators to bid for a medium-security prison near Windsor, while warning that existing, government-run prisons which fail to cut reoffending rates will be put to competitive tender.

Steve McMahon, from the Public Service Association, called the announcement a “short sighted cash grab” which would compromise safety and rehabilitation inside prisons. “We’ve been trying to work with the Baird government in fixing the overcrowding crisis in our gaols,” he said, “but this is purely about selling off public assets to get their hands on more money.”

Lobbying difficulties

One of the major obstacles to doing away with private prisons in the US has been the enormous lobbying power of private prison companies.

Since 2010, the three largest private operators have collectively spent nearly $9.7 million lobbying Congress and other federal agencies, including the Justice Department and US Marshals Service.

The trio has lobbied heavily against reforms which would affect their commercial interests. They have funded campaigns against the ‘Justice Is Not for Sale’ Act of 2015, a bill pushed by Senator Bernie Sanders that would have banned private prisons, and the ‘Private Prison Information Act’ of 2015, which would have subjected private prison records to Freedom of Information Act requests. Both bills failed to pass Congress.

Although leading presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has backed current president Obama’s bill, it is interesting that her ‘Ready for Hillary Super PAC’ received $133,246 from lobbying firms linked to the two biggest private prison operators in the US.

Between 2003 and 2011, CCA contributed to over 600 state candidates, and the second biggest company GEO contributed to over 400. The corporations backed a high proportion of candidates who ultimately won elections, which may indicate a strategy of focusing contributions on candidates likely to wield power. GEO, for example, made 506 campaign donations to incumbents and only 12 donations to challengers between 2003 and 2011.

People power

Despite the financial power of prison companies, the US appears to have finally won the battle against unsafe, ineffective and costly private facilities.

Indeed, numerous popular protests ultimately triggered government action, leading to laws which are intended to see the end of private prisons altogether.

Meanwhile in NSW, our state government seems intent on making big business happy despite evidence that privately run operations are against the interests of both justice and the community.

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Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a lawyer with a passion for social justice who advocates criminal law reform, and a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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