Point/Counterpoint: Private Prisons are Scandalous, Violent, and Inhumane

Addison Scufsa

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The justice and prison systems in the United States are completely broken. Everything from sentencing to felon rights and parole contributes to systems that promote a high recidivism rate and punishment over rehabilitation. One major aspect of our prison system that contributes to high incarceration rates is the private prison. These prisons contain a large percentage of the prison population, and when combined with other broken features, this creates a new system of modern slavery through mass incarceration. The first step towards fixing it is abolishing private prison contracts. 

Private prisons at their core are fundamentally inhumane and wrong. Prisons, and justice at large, do not exist for profit. Creating a prison to house criminals and get paid based on the number of inmates incentivizes corporations to cut back on important services that protect both staff and inmates, while also providing an incentive for these companies to keep the recidivism rate high. 

Many reports have been released showing that in order to turn a profit in these private prisons, basic services and training for staff must be cut to raise the bottom line. This was one of the main reasons, according to the Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in 2016, that the federal government was beginning to phase out private prisons in favor of federal prisons. 

Oliver Hart, a nobel prize winner in Economics, released a well documented report, saying privatization of prisons often focuses on the wrong incentives for training as well as housing inmates. These incentives, put into government contracts, require a certain amount of hours of training for each employee, yet have no incentives for the outcomes of this training, meaning they ultimately are worthless for providing a safer prison. Other services such as beds, food, and clothes are also documented as having gone down in quality when moving from public to private control, both by Oliver Hart and by inspection agencies.

Scandals and corruption are also a widespread issue within the private prison business and system. The most famous scandal was at the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi, where a rape of a female inmate in 2009 by the mayor, who was also the warden, was made public later. That was just the beginning of the scandals that included facility violence, guards organizing and betting on fights, rape, and horrendous conditions that the Department of Justice reported in 2012, leading to the prison’s closure. Bribery charges were also filed against several people involved with the prison.

While Walnut Grove is an extreme example, its problems are also representative of the overall system’s problems. Other prisons located in New York and California have had similar scandals regarding rape and bribery. Further reports by various state and federal government agencies show violence against guards and fellow inmates are higher on average by 50 to 60% percent in private prisons versus public prisons. Contraband rates also increase at a similar level, according to a DOJ report in 2016.

The violence, corruption, poor living conditions, and incentive to not rehabilitate inmates all feed into an inherently inhumane system, one that can be solved at a slightly higher cost to taxpayers by creating only public prisons. While we would be on the hook for more money, prisons are one thing that the government should always run and make available. It’s a public safety risk to not rehabilitate prisoners, and it is a human rights violation against inmates who suffer violence and third-world conditions.