Prison Cells for Profit

They promise to increase efficiency, but what is the real cost of for-profit prisons? As the US prison population continues to grow, there should be pause for thought on both sides of the Atlantic

A football stadium named after a prison sounds like something that must be made up. Unbelievably, a university in Florida considered this very possibility last year, although they ultimately rejected it due to intense public outrage. The mere possibility sheds light on a disturbing and growing trend in the American justice system: the rise of for-profit prisons. With 730 prisoners per 100,000 residents, the United States has a higher proportionate prison population than the countries of Rwanda, Afghanistan or Russia.  Although the United States has 5% of the world’s population, they house 25% of the world’s prison population. There are over 2 million prisoners in the United States, and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic. The rise of for-profit prison enterprises looks to continue this trend of incarceration.

For-profit prisons exist in states such as Florida and California, and profit from the prison sentences of inmates. California, which has faced intense problems with overcrowding in public jails, and has turned to for-profit prisons for relief. The largest company administering these institutions is the Corrections Corporation of America. Assisting in a situation of overcrowding sounds innocent, but for-profit prisons often insist that quotas be met and a certain numbers of beds filled in the facilities. Crucially, this incentivizes incarceration, encouraging custodial sentences rather than a focus rehabilitation. In a country with an already rising prison population, for-profit prisons provide a damaging financial incentive to keep the population high.

Those who spend time in prison are often unable to participate in the democratic process through voting, an issue that Eric Holder, the Attorney General, is seeking to address. Many are non-violent offenders who are serving drug sentences.

Although President Obama has called for reconsideration of harsh drug sentencing laws which target low-income citizens, the motivation to keep beds full at for-profit prisons indicates that prison reform may be a long time coming. Additionally, while many government-run prisons have programs that allow for inmates to learn valuable skills, for-profit prisons often lack such amenities.

Since prisons house inmates who have presumably committed some crime, it is easy to lack empathy. However, given the income and racial disparities in sentencing and the idea of basic rights for all, there must be a line at which making money from the pain of others seems like a step too far.

Issues of prison overcrowding are not to be taken lightly. The trend towards for-profit prisons assisting in the burden, however, should give us pause for thought on both sides of the Atlantic. While these prisons can claim to increase efficiency, it is unclear if the benefits outweigh the risk of putting a financial incentive towards imprisoning even more people. Considering the high rate of incarceration already, policymakers might do well to consider how to prevent crime, rehabilitate prisoners so they do not become repeat offenders, and change sentencing laws for non-violent offenders. For-profit prisons may have a place in society, but the risks of profiting from the backs of others, even criminals, should be considered before rushing to adopt a prison system based on profit.

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Grace Feenstra

US Blog Editor for OxPolicy. I got involved with OxPolicy during my time abroad, where I was a student at New College. Back in the United States, I’m currently finishing my last year at Washington University in St Louis, double majoring in economics and urban studies.

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