Point/Counterpoint: The Case for Private Prisons

Tor Anderbeck

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When witnessing a discussion about criminal justice, I usually hear someone mention the necessity of abolishing private prisons. Despite almost never providing evidence to support their claim, they receive universal agreement from their teachers and peers. Their lack of evidence is because the research is rather conflicting on whether or not private prisons currently perform a worse service than public ones. 

There is some actual evidence that private prisons are superior, especially when considering that they are generally cheaper. Similar to public prisons, private prisons undoubtedly have problems, but if the system were constructed in such a way that incentivized quality, private prisons would quickly surpass public prisons due to private companies’ increased ability to respond to economic incentives. If the power of the free market were unleashed in this regard, we could see safer, more secure prisons that develop prisoners into productive, lawful citizens.

One of the chief objections posed by opponents of private prisons is that they are inhumane. This is certainly true, but public prisons are not much better. In fact, according to a report in August 2016 from the Office of the Inspector General, prisoners in privately run facilities are less likely to use drugs, sexually assault or be assaulted, and less likely to die while in prison. The report did find more examples of violence in private prisons but the report admitted that their results were skewed by demographics, like the fact that private prisons house significantly more gang members in relation to public prisons.

In addition, private prisons help with the problem of overcrowding in places like in California where, at one point, the public prison system was operating at 137.5% of capacity. By taking some of the burden off the public prison system, private prisons can make living in a prison less crowded and more humane. 

Not only can private prisons improve conditions, but they can also reduce recidivism rates. A study of 650 prisoners in Arkansas found that they were 50% less likely to re-offend than public prisoners.

While the question of conditions under public and private prisons is debatable, the question of relative price hardly is. Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, said in his interview with Joe Rogan that he privatized about half of New Mexico’s prisons because private prisons performed roughly the same service as the public ones for two-thirds of the price. Even a more conservative estimate like the 2016 report from the Inspector General concluded that private prisons cost 3,000 fewer dollars per inmate each year.

Another common objection to private prisons is that they lobby for more people to be prosecuted for longer sentences. However, according to Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, “Yes, private firms have incentives to maximize the number of prisoners — but so do public sector actors, and they often have stronger incentives to do so, not to mention easier access to the politicians. In fact, public prisons suffer from every pathology attributed to private prison firms.” It makes little difference whether the prison is publicly or privately owned, the staff still want to keep their jobs.

The primary advantage of private prisons, however, is not the present reality but the potential. Currently, the government pays the prisons per prisoner with no connection to efficacy. It would have a powerful impact on the quality of service provided by prisons if they were directly rewarded for rehabilitating former criminals, thereby making it more profitable to get people out of prison indefinitely than for them to come back. Pfaff suggests that “instead of paying private prisons based on the number of prisoners they held each day, we paid them based on how those prisoners performed upon release”.

Currently, private prisons are only slightly better than public ones. With a little more government supervision and contracts that make them want to innovate and improve, private prisons could easily become the vastly more humane, effective, and affordable method of incarceration.