Why For-Profit Prisons Are a Bad System

Private for-profit prisons are a bad system. As of 2009, at least 129,000 people in the U.S. were held in privately-run prisons.

That’s a little more than the population of Gainesville, Florida. These prisons are compensated based on inmate population, which for a profit-driven enterprise creates a simple equation: more inmates = more profit. Naturally the for-profit prison industry spends millions on lobbying and campaign contributions. The industry has lobbied for policies that drive up inmate population, such as Arizona’s harsh immigration law.

GEO Group, one of the largest prison companies, has donated over two million dollars to Political Action Committees associated with the Republican Party of Florida. In a country with largest prison population in the world and the second-highest incarceration rate in the world, this is a very bad incentive structure to allow.

The problems with for-profit prisons aren’t just at the level of national or state policy. Some recent episodes highlight the problem with creating the profit incentive structure in the first place.

Cornhole Boards for Jesus (and Profit)

In Tennessee two former prisoners have leveled accusations at private prison officials where they were incarcerated, claiming the officials forced them to work making cornhole games and plaques for free. The prison officials then sold the games through their private company, “Stand Firm Designs,” which describes itself as a “Christian-based organization.”

Knowing simple accusations would probably not be enough, the prisoners figured out a way to prove the items they made were sold illegally:

To prove the items being sold by Stand Firm Designs were made by inmates, Stephney and Brew concealed their names under pieces of wood nailed to the backs of items. They also wrote the number 412148, which refers to a section of Tennessee code that makes it illegal for jail officials to require an inmate to perform labor that results in the official’s personal gain.

The private prison is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the other large private prison contractor in the U.S. Although all reports sound like this was an operation run without CCA’s knowledge, it highlights a systemic problem with for-profit prisons.

The Real Money’s in Concessions

In a privately-run detention center in Texas, undocumented immigrants can voluntarily work for $3.00 per day doing jobs like cleaning bathrooms and hallways. Although it’s illegal for such immigrants to work in the U.S., they are able to be put to work inside these detention centers once arrested by immigration authorities.

Here’s the problem: inside the detention center the cost of everything at the commissary is jacked up to about what you would pay at a movie theater. Water costs $2.00 a bottle, a bag of chips is $4.00. Keep in mind that these detention centers aren’t prisons or jails – they aren’t supposed to punish, just detain undocumented immigrants until deportation.

Hidden Add-On Fees

Prisons also charge for telephone calls by inmates – even charging people outside the prisonto accept telephone calls from inside. Jails are now using private debit-card companies to handle inmate cash, who charge monthly service and account fees.

Prisons charge inmates for meals, for medical care, or for other necessary items like toiletries. States charge prisoners a per-day rate for their stay. Once an inmate is release, the bill collectors come calling, and failure to pay can land the former inmate back in jail or prison.

Even Hillsborough County is going to move to a for-profit probation system by the beginning of October if nothing changes. The new company, Sentinel Offender Services, has a history of gouging probationers with fees and using the police and courts as their personal debt collectors.

We Need Different Solutions

Prison is expensive. So far the only solutions politicians seem to be willing to try are building more prisons, selling off correctional services to the private sector, or throwing inmates into a cycle of debt. These solutions just end up exacerbating the original problem.

Being “tough on crime” by locking up more and more people through the war on drugs or increased mandatory minimums further burdens the system and creates generations of people unable to break the cycle of crime and imprisonment. We need different solutions.