I’ve thought a lot about the privatization of the prison system.
Less than 10% of both state and federal inmates are housed in private facilities. But the cost savings and oversight of private prisons tend to outweigh the poor public perception.
My experience in a prison system was in Georgia. Georgia has 34 prisons, with four of them run by two different private companies. Georgia’s private prisons are minimum security and mostly made up of drug offenders and probation violators.
The corruption and poor management tends to come from county-run facilities rather than state-run or federally operated prisons. I have the biggest problem with the locally-controlled operations.
Corruption and Abuse in Federal and State Prisons
A good example of prison management are prisons run by the state of Georgia. The four private prisons in Georgia are heavily monitored and regulated. In fact, there have been a lot of complaints filed by the owners of the facilities. State-run prisons are more harshly regulated than other types of prisons.
When a person is convicted of a crime, the judge can only determine the length of the prison term. The level of security needed and the location an inmate is assigned is determined by the prison system itself. In Georgia, a newly convicted inmate is housed in the local jail. Then, they are sent to a central classification facility. There, it is determined where the inmate will be assigned. The judge has no idea where an inmate eventually goes, or even the fact that an inmate is regularly moved from one location to another. In my case, I was housed at no fewer than five facilities over five years before being moved into a transitional center.
Corruption and Abuse in County Prisons
The corruption and abuse happens on the local level. Many counties across the United States have created profit centers out of their jails. It is important to understand that when one is convicted of a crime, they are always temporarily housed in the local jail. The abuse happens when a local jail delays the paperwork. This paperwork alerts the state that a person has been convicted and needs to be moved into the prison system. On average, a local jail receives anywhere from $55/day to $80/day (depending on the state) for housing a convicted inmate. In Georgia, there are many counties that will house these new convicts for other municipalities knowing that they will receive this money from the state.
A great example was Douglas County, Georgia. Back in 2010, Douglas County increased their inmate capacity to almost 2000 inmates. Until Georgia changed the law (and now forces county jails to forward inmate paperwork in a timely manner) the average convicted inmate spent over four months in the local jail before being “moved-up” into the prison system. By building this huge facility (which has a greater capacity than most of Georgia’s individual prisons) the county can handle the overflow from Atlanta and other local counties. While in the jail, the inmate was usually assigned to labor details. This supplemented the county’s coffers above and beyond the daily money they received from the state. On average, it cost Douglas County about $16/day to house an inmate. They received $65/day from the state and took advantage of the free labor they got from the inmates. This was on top of the fact that Douglas County had built their new jail using a federal grant.
Corruption and Abuse in Private Prisons
Surprisingly, I have seen very few cases of abuse within private prisons. In general, they are heavily monitored and regulated by the appropriate authorities. When issues come up, it is much easier to sue a private company than a state or federal authority. Also, the private prisons tend to be newer facilities with better living conditions for the inmates.
My experience with government bureaucracies is that they tend to be poorly run and can avoid accountability through corruption. A private facility tends to be run more like a business. Their concern is to avoid any issues that could inadvertently spotlight their operation. I do not believe that the sentencing and housing of inmates has been affected by the privatization of prisons. The need for them became necessary because of the overcrowding caused by federal and state drug laws. As our society continues to move away from imprisoning drug abusers or at least reducing their sentences, the need for these private facilities will be reduced.
In the future, I believe that there is more accountability if the prison is “built by the state” but “operated by private contractors.” This way, the operation can be privatized but the contractor running the facility can be fired. Today, almost all private prisons are “built and run” by the contractor. This makes it much costly and difficult to terminate a private contractor. If the state owns the prison, it would be much easier to terminate the contractor. Then, the option of the state taking over the management or issuing a new contract would be smoother and less costly.