Privatizing Prisons: A Bad Deal for Inmates and Society

Posted March 18, 2015

MP3 Interview with Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


In the past few years, many states have undertaken efforts to reform their criminal justice policies and practices, either from a justice perspective or out of concern that the swelling ranks of the incarcerated are breaking budgets. Policy changes across the nation have included early prisoner release before a sentence has been completed and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, which provide treatment for drug addiction and/or mental health issues. Just under half of inmates serving time in state prisons are there for non-violent offenses such as drug possession or forgery.

Now, a new study from public policy experts at Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota finds that the higher the concentration of private, for-profit prisons in a state, the less likely that state's legislature is to pass criminal justice reform laws. Two corporations – the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America – operate the majority of 200 private prisons in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Texas has 62 private prisons, while most other states operate just one. Almost seven percent of federal inmates are incarcerated in private prisons, while for state inmates, it's almost 14 percent.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a national research and policy center that focuses on the privatization of public services. The center has issued its own reports on the privatization of U.S. prisons, which are paid for with U.S. tax dollars. Here, he discusses some of the negative impacts of the privatization trend and alternatives that can make the criminal justice system more humane and cost effective.

DONALD COHEN: We don't actually think private prisons have a role in American criminal justice, because the profit incentive is counter to what we need to do to release the overwhelming number of people in prison to be able to do in prison what we need to do in terms of getting people out with jobs skills and good lives so they don't come back. One of the main things we think we need to do to reduce the number of people in prison in America is to reduce and remove the power of private prison companies. And we have seen all around the country where private prison companies lobby for things that help keep heads and beds, because it's in their interest. Private prison companies make money by having people in prison. And if you look at their corporate reports – of CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, or the GEO Group, these are the two major prison companies – they include a section that they call risk factors, things that could be a risk to their bottom line, and one of those things is changes in sentencing law. Bottom line, reduce crime is a bad thing – will hurt the private prison companies materially, it will hurt their bottom line. That's all well and good, but it's not our concern. That's not how we should be running a criminal justice system.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Donald Cohen, what have you found in your organization's own research into private prisons?

DONALD COHEN: Well, one of the things we highlighted in terms of private prison companies is we did research a couple years back and we're updating it now, where we analyzed most of the private prison contracts between states and the companies, and what we found is that two-thirds of them had bed guarantees of 80, 90, and 100 percent. That was the range. In other words, the contract stipulated, Keep the beds filled to that amount or pay us anyway. We find that is a real incentive to keep the beds filled, which is really pretty powerful. The last contractual obligation we would want, or any obligation we would want with a private interest whose job it is to generate revenue, have that kind of influence over the direction and outcome of our criminal justice system and the amount of people in prison. It's just awful.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And isn't the main argument they use is that private prisons are more efficient than publicly run prisons?

DONALD COHEN: It sounds good, but think about what that means. You have correctional officers, you have prisons, you have food, you have prisoners, and you have programs. I mean, that's what happens in a prison. So reducing cost means fewer correctional officers, leading to more dangerous prisons, and you reduce educational or other programs or health care, or they just cut corners like they make the food crappier. When they say cost savings or more efficient, they mean, "We're gonna spend less on things." So it's really important to look at what that actually means.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What about the prison guard unions? They seem to back their members no matter how outrageously they treat prisoners. Are they a brake on prison reform too?

DONALD COHEN: It has been in the past. Some unions are more powerful than others, depending on the state, so there's a few things to say. Three strikes in California, where I live, the correctional officers' union, CCPOA, was a major supporter of that back in the early '90s, I guess it was. But just this past fall, California passed what's referred to as Prop. 47, which significantly reduces the number of felonies – turns them back into misdemeanors – and the correctional officers' unions did not oppose it. I don't think they were engaged, particularly; and it passed quite overwhelmingly. So what you're seeing is a real change in correctional officers' unions for the following reasons: overcrowding is not good for either people in prison or people who work in prisons. Number 2 is that correctional officers know on a daily basis that our prison system is the country's mental health system, and that massive numbers of people in prison really shouldn't be in prison; they should be dealt with a sane community mental health setting. You know, the correction officers don't have the skills, they don't think they have the skills; they don't think they should be the one. So they're beginning to see there are other things that should be done in terms of that. So I think you're seeing a dramatic shift in that.

I should also say, they are really dangerous jobs. We've talked to lots of correctional officers as well, and done some research. One of the highest rates of PTSD of any occupation in the country. High rates of suicide; high rates of divorce. It's an awful job.

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