The Privatization of Our Prisons: Truth Behind Bars

The privatization of the prison industry gives rise to the concept known as the “Industrial Prison Complex”, the idea that profit drives the growth of the prison industry. This concept is rampant in the United States but Canada could be next. An example of this idea can be demonstrated by the Government outsourcing its management and control of the prison system  to private corporations which may build, operate and run  facilities for the Government in a more efficient manner than what would otherwise be possible. The prison industry is becoming one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.

In the United States, which boasts the highest prisoner incarceration rate in the world,   there are several  corporations including Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), amongst others which see opportunity in steadily growing incarceration rates, and overcrowding prisons leading to what has become  a billion dollar a year industry in the United States alone. These companies build, manage and provide services to the prison industry such as healthcare, food, psychiatric, design, and secure transportation services to name but a few.

CCA alone, privately owns 44 facilities across the United States  providing services for 86,821 prisoners. It’s no surprise its stock value soared nearly 32% in the last year despite the  economic downturn. President Obama has allocated $53.4 million dollars to pay for 1000 new contract beds in 2010, and $5.4 billion dollars has been allocated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the United State’s Homeland Security which just recently opened bids for the construction of a detention facility  for men to house “Criminal Aliens”.

When inmates are transferred from an overcrowded public prison to a private prison, they are said to be “imported”. The fee paid to the private prison for this importation will range between $2.50-$5.50 per day.

Other  ways for the private sector to take advantage of bursting prison populations are through contracting services with prisons. Many well known corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, Revlon,  Dell and Victoria’s Secret (which aint so secret anymore) take advantage of low cost inmate labour, which allows for exploitation of a workforce without having to pay a nickel for overtime, or unemployment insurance, and in many cases even escape with paying well below minimum wage.

Low cost prison labour provides “Domestic Sweatshops” for those inmates involved, while drastically reducing costs and maximizing profits for the corporate actors at play. Many products and services manufactured and sold in this manner includes military equipment, paint brushes, airplane parts  as well as telemarketing and guide-dog training services.

One concern expressed with the privatization of prisons relates to quality of service that could be provided compared to what the Government could provide. One view is that the Government would be better equipped than the private sector at managing prisons because it will act in the best interest of the public and run prisons to promote the cardinal goals of incarceration: offender rehabilitation; punishment; and public safety. On the other hand, the private sector would arguably put profit ahead of quality and be unable to prioritize the cardinal goals of incarceration with profit.

Others argue that Government run prisons lack the incentive to do things better, and that  by offloading such responsibilities to the private sector, the Government could minimize its legal exposure to lawsuits and costly insurance premiums that act as another Government disincentive.

Upon a review of  the privatization of the criminal justice system, one can see the many stakeholders at play. These stakeholders range from inmates, to the public as a whole to private corporate interests all of which play a role in how our criminal justice system is shaped. It would be naive for me to deny the fact that much of what the Government decides is a result of private sector lobbyists advocating for the interests of the wealthy private enterprise. Criminal laws are no exception.

Despite the Government’s rhetoric that “tough on crime” laws are being made to promote “public safety”, the truth behind many laws are simply to continue to bulk up the prison populations to stimulate economic growth and appease corporate players. The imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in Canada and elsewhere, and the “three strikes rule” in the U.S., is further proof that violent offences are not a prerequisite for doing hard time. Caging people for life for stealing a slice of pizza, serves nobody but the corporations who profit from the long term stay. The Government using media as a platform to play into the fear of the citizenry to support the incarceration of “Criminal Aliens” or “Terrorists” is exactly  the message they want you to believe.

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