When public funds for new prison construction dry up, states and counties turn to private, for-profit prison operators. For a per-bed, per-day fee, these companies take on the task of housing, feeding and safeguarding prison inmates. Banned in the early 20th century, private prisons have made a comeback since the 1980s. Although the practice can save money for governments, it still has detractors, and a debate continues around implications of private prisons for the public interest.
Private Sector Efficiency
For-profit corporations in the prison business include Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, Corrections Corporation of America and Cornell Corrections. These companies claim the private sector can run prisons more efficiently than public agencies since the profit motive prompts them to cut unnecessary expense and hold to tighter operating budgets.
Opponents of private prisons claim cost savings may come at the expense of prison security and public safety, and may also prompt prison operators to skimp on medical facilities, rehabilitation programs and expenses related to the general welfare of the inmates.
Effect on Criminal Justice System
Advocates of private prisons see these institutions as an asset to the criminal justice system, as they relieve public agencies of the burdens of running prisons. In addition, with law enforcement and public courts as their "clients," private prison operators are held accountable for high standards in their facilities and operations.
Opponents see for-profit prisons as a corrupting influence, since private prison corporations would naturally lobby legislators for tougher laws and longer sentences – and as a result, more prison inmates. By the same token, campaign contributions on the part of a prison operator to a lawmaker would amount to outright bribery.
Fewer Rehabilitation Programs in Private Prisons
A private prison serves essentially the same function as a public one: housing convicts for the duration of their sentence, or until they are paroled. Although the criminal justice system makes prisons essential, they still represent an expensive way to deal with crime, whether they're public or private. Housing, feeding and securing a person costs more than returning him to the general population, monitoring him and requiring job training, drug rehab or community service.
For-profit prisons generally don't run these kinds of programs, however, and therefore have no motivation to support alternative methods of dealing with convicted criminals – which are cheaper for the taxpayer.
Purchase of Existing Prisons
Private prison operators also have made offers throughout the country for existing prisons. Rather than building a new institution, these deals place a formerly public prison into private hands over the term of a lease. Proponents claim this relieves the taxpayers of a heavy cost burden. Opponents see prison privatization in the larger context of outsourcing: the surrender of public services and infrastructure to the private sector.
Contracts signed with states and municipalities often require a minimum occupancy guarantee. If the prison falls to less than 90 percent full, for example, the contract may require compensation from the government granting the lease. Not only does this arrangement motivate law enforcement to put more people behind bars, it can deliver budget-busting cost overruns that are borne by the taxpayers.