The Evils of Private Prisons: a Non-Exhaustive List

WC is long on record as opposed to private prisons and, indeed, the privatization of what should be the government’s monopoly of force. Every argument in favor of privatization of parts of the justice system has turned out to be false on closer examination. Recent developments only underscore the evil of privatization of justice.

A recent series of stories in the New York Times has revealed that in New Jersey state prisoners are farmed out to private prisons and halfway houses, some of them to completely inappropriate levels of custody, so that the state of New Jersey can rent the vacated cells to the federal government for its overflowing prison population. New Jersey makes more money renting the cells to the Feds than it pays to it halfway house operators, so it nets money on each prisoner. There’s a perverse incentive to place high-risk prisoners in the inexpensive halfway houses, even if the prisoners are dangerous, or recidivists, or even previous escapees. Oh, and more than 1,000 prisoners have escaped from New Jersey’s privately owned and operated halfway houses since 2009. About 100 have been caught and convicted. In the very quintessence of perverted capitalism, a state is contracting its monopoly of force to a private company, that is botching the job for which it was hired. So that the state can compete with private companies in the Feds’ effort to contract its monopoly of force.

There’s a similar pattern in the business of probation. Probation is the state-supervised monitoring of a convicted criminal. From making sure fines get paid to peeing in a cup, it’s supposed to be a way of keeping track of convicted criminals who don’t warrant (or no longer warrant) imprisonment. Efforts to privatize that in about 15 states have been instructive.

In Alabama, a woman fined $179 for speeding wound up with total probation fees of $3,170. It’s a kind of state-sanctioned return to a debtor prison system. If you don’t pay a fine, you get sent to jail where the cost of your imprisonment is added to your fine, making it still harder to pay the fine. All performed by private, for-profit companies, who have every incentive to pile the add-ons onto the bill. In Georgia, an army veterean with a monthly income of $243 in veterans’ benefits was charged with public drunkenness. He was assessed $270 by a court and put on probation through a private company. The company added a $15 enrollment fee and $39 in monthly fees. That put his total for a year above $700. When the army veteran couldn’t pay it, he was jailed. And now his jail fees are being added to his tab.

Even in the context of straightforward private prisons, there are obnoxious consequences the the decision of the government to subcontract its monopoly of force. One is obvious: the longer a person is kept in prison, the more money the private prison contractor makes. It’s all about dollars per prisoner per day. Keep the population up and you keep the revenue up. As you would predict, private prisons have lower rates of good time – time cut off of criminal sentences for good behavior. Good time cuts into profits.

Nor is there any clear evidence that they save the governments money. First, think of it as an exercise in logic. Why would private prisons set their price point more than a dollar or two below the cost of state operation? It would cut into profits, and that’s practically socialism. And, as logic would predict, there’s no evidence of significant savings.

And you trade decent paying government jobs for poorly paying private jobs; benefits packages for no benefits, low turnover for high turnover and substantive training for minimal training. Can’t be cutting into profits, remember.

But for WC the greatest evil is the state giving a private party its monopoly of force. The key question for any government comes to one issue: what do you allow a government to do that you don’t allow a private person to do? And one of those things is to hold a person against their will. When you hand that power to a private person, who has completely different motives and goals, you stomp on that social bargain. It’s wrong.