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I know that it is not exactly a settled argument here in America what it is we are attempting to accomplish with jail or prison. Clearly, there is a safety aspect as some members of our society have proven themselves to be dangerous to others so, in a sense, incarceration is protecting ‘the rest of us.’ But beyond this societal need, which may legitimately account for some imprisonment but not the majority of the incarcerated, the jury is still out about whether the experience is focused more on punishment or on rehabilitation. America constitutionally intends to protect all people from ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ enshrined by the 8th Amendment. Without getting all “Running Man,” paranoid about it, the conflicts between the needs of the incarcerated and the needs of a for-profit company running a jail or prison are entirely worth considering.
In many ways, private prisons could serve as an entryway into some thoughts on the downsides of capitalism in general, but for the moment, let’s just consider the insanity of putting the lives of incarcerated people in the hands of organizations driven by shareholders and the profit motive. The care and safety of incarcerated people are not at the top of many people’s thoughts if it does not need to be. We can go about our days knowing that tens of thousands of humans are being held in small overcrowded rooms serving the time that our system has deemed appropriate to them. Sometimes this is happening just hundreds of meters across the street from our own offices.
From a humanistic standpoint, those whose job and duty it is to house and contain these people have enormous pressure to do so efficiently and safely in underfunded, oversaturated conditions while still working to protect the basic humanity of the incarcerated and uphold our constitutional mandate. This is a hugely difficult task, wardens are operating at the nexus of budget constraints, competing interests of factions both inside and outside the facility. The needs and safety of the incarcerated are a constant factor, but one of the dozens. We hear all the time about increasing the flexibility in the market to find the most efficient and effective solutions because the competition is good. But what is the competition thought to be in the case of private prisons or jails? It’s not as if these institutions are competing for sales or exposure (unless we get to the feared Running Man future, turning incarceration of the few into the entertainment of the many). The money to house people in privately owned facilities is still coming from the government at the end of the day. Though large facilities can develop, to some extent, a feedback loop to affect the amount they are paid by the government, what we get is essentially a privately run company providing a service for a set number of inmates for a set fee.
Private companies can absolutely have a positive impact on the world both in terms of what they create and provide and for the people actually working for the company itself. This is hard to imagine when one thinks of a privately run incarceration facility. The facility is essentially working on a fixed income but is owned by a company focused on profit, the pressure to cut costs is endemic and deeply troubling. Any decision that does not improve the financial picture for the owners is going to be challenged, even those with the best interests of the incarcerated in mind.
Without advocating for specific policy changes or political positions, it is fair to point out inherent system conflicts of interest and ways that our basic humanism is trampled in the interest of profit or expediency. With that in mind, we can safely congratulate the Justice Department in signaling the end of its use of private for-profit prisons to house federal inmates.