Celling Prisoners for Private Profit
by Naneen Karraker
Resist newsletter, January 2000
Growing involvement of the private sector in the imprisonment
business is a multi-faceted monster that very effectively moves
public dollars into private hands, all in the name of public safety.
Least problematic, and often helpful, are halfway houses and work
furlough programs for people coming out of state and federal prisons;
they have long been operated by private, usually non-profit, agencies.
Similarly, private parties run many lower security juvenile institutions
like those used by juvenile probation departments. More troubling
is the private financing and construction of prisons, jails, and
other detention facilities. Too often these schemes override voter
opposition to building more prisons or jails and assure a big
profit for a few investors.
Abuses of Private Prisons
In many ways, the most grotesque face of this monster is visible
in privately operated secure institutions for adult state and
federal prisoners. These "private prisons" are designed
to lock up people for longer terms than the other facilities described
above. They are supposed to provide a range of programs in cleaner
and safer environments than public prisons or jails and at a lower
cost. Those promises haven't panned out. As several well-publicized
incidents have shown, life in private prisons can be as brutal
as in public prisons.
A 1998 US Justice Department report on a series of prisoner
abuses at a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in
Youngstown, Ohio described weapons searches that went well beyond
common or necessary correctional practice and seemed intended
to systematically degrade and humiliate all the inmates... [E]mergency
teams heavily outfitted in riot gear, after performing a customary
strip search of each inmate, refused to allow the inmates to at
least cover themselves with shorts and led them shackled and naked
out of their cells where they forced them to lie on the floor
in groups or to kneel, leaning with their face against the wall
for 30 to 60 minutes whiles the cells were searched.... Inmates
who objected were forcibly removed to segregation by the Special
Operations and Response Teams (SORT), at times with the use of
Justifications and Rationales
Privatization advocates base their arguments encouraging private
operation of prisons on two assumptions. First, advocates claim
that contracting services to private enterprises is superior to
government provision of those services. Services are provided
more efficiently (read "at a lower cost") because they
are not "mired in red tape." Private employers can hire
and fire more easily since their workers are not protected by
union contracts. This assures that workers are more disciplined
(read "terrified that they will lose their jobs").
The other assumption is that competition among private service
providers stimulates innovation, flexibility, and efficiency-
characteristics not encouraged by government monopoly of service
Initially, for-profit prison advocates cited several major
changes in the role of government to justify their cause. Beginning
in the late 1 970s, government spending and revenue collection
limits were established in many state and local jurisdictions.
Elimination of federal revenue sharing by the mid-1980s left local
governments without funds they could have used for building and
operating locked facilities. Finally, many state governments reached
their debt limits largely due to extensive prison financing. Meanwhile
politicians continued to enact legislation requiring imprisonment
of more people, many for longer terms.
When voters refuse to pass construction-financing bonds, private
enterprise steps in to make sure that more cages are built. When
a state's prison operations budget begins to steal from the college
budget, public prison administrators just contract with a
private prison operator to house prisoners. Though the costs are
often higher, the state looks as though it is not expanding its
As William Nagel, a former prison warden and author wrote
in the mid- 1 970s, "As long as we continue to build more
prisons we will have neither the will nor the pressure to seek
more workable alternatives."
California: A Privatization Study
California boasts the nation's biggest prison system. One
in every 14 state prisoners in the US is in a California state
prison. As of September 1999, over 162,000 people were imprisoned
in California correctional facilities. More than 45,000 prisoners
had been committed under the state's "Three Strikes"
law. By the year 2006, the California Department of Corrections
expects a gap between the number of prisoners and space to house
them to be over 70,000.
In preparation for this huge growth in the state's prison
population the California Treasurer concocted a scheme in the
early-1980s to privately finance prisons without voter approval.
This scheme, called lease purchase financing, initially accelerated
construction of several prisons while voters more slowly supported
general revenue bond financing of others.
After the state's voters defeated a prison construction bond
measure in 1990, lease purchase financing assured construction
of over a dozen more California prisons. And, though it ultimately
cost taxpayers more due to higher interest rates on non-voter
approved bonds, it was all perfectly legal.
In the early 1990s, the California Criminal Justice Consortium
enlisted a highly respected civil rights attorney to try and secure
help from the more liberal big law firms in the state to assess
the legality of lease purchase financing. None of them would even
look at it. They all refused on the grounds that questioning the
practice might jeopardize their already lucrative business of
handling the legal aspects of state bond financing.
Despite the growth of state prisons, private prisons in California
have struggled to gain a foothold. Presently privately operated
prisons house only about 3% of the total number of state prisoners.
Not deterred, the largest of these companies employ lobbyists
in the state capitol to keep up the pressure.
Activist Opposition and Alternatives
Opposition to this burgeoning private prison business is coming
from several arenas. Not surprisingly, prison guards unions have
become some of the most energetic opponents of private prisons,
but rarely in the public interest. Most only want to assure control
over one of the fastest growing sectors of the labor market without
critiquing the privatization of prisons or the growth of the prison
industry as a whole.
One of the most effective demonstrations of this phenomenon
took place in Tennessee. CCA proposed to take over the state's
prisons in 1985. Initially, the American Federal, State, County,
and Municipal Employees AFL-CIO state chapter beat them back.
The CCA returned two years later and were run out of town by state
service workers. On the west coast, the notorious California Correctional
Peace Officers' Association (CCPOA) has managed to block at least
three legislative attempts to authorize significant privatization
of the state's prison system.
The prison reform community nationwide, with rare exceptions,
sees privatization as yet another means of caging more people,
mostly poor people and disproportionately people of color. Private
financing of prison and jail construction, and private operation
of prisons just makes it easier for the government to ignore the
consequences of passing increasingly draconian laws that criminalize
more activities, mandate prison sentences in more situations,
and sentence people for longer terms.
Groups like the Criminal Justice Consortium, an alliance of
service and advocacy organizations and individuals, are dedicated
to reducing over-reliance on incarceration in California and promoting
the least restrictive, most humane alternatives to incarceration.
By providing information, convening regular gatherings and educating
both the general public and key decision-makers about the real
costs of prison privatization, activists keep up the pressure
to create more workable alternatives.
Naneen Karraker coordinates the Criminal Justice Consortium,
which received a grant from Resist in 1999. For information, contact
them at 1515 Webster Street, Oakland, CA 94612.