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 stun shields.

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 provision.

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 prison system.

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.

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