What They're Saying

About The Private Sector’s Role In Corrections & Detention

October 21, 2019

On 2020 Candidates & Private Sector Corrections & Detention

The Economist: Presidential Candidates Blaming Mass Incarceration On Private Prisons Is “A Non Sequitur;” Critics “Should Focus On The Number Of Prisoners, Not Where They Are Held.”

“Politicians, especially presidential hopefuls, often jump from criticism of over-incarceration to commitments to close private prisons, implying that private prisons are the problem. This is a non sequitur. As Michael Jacobson, of City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance, points out, ‘it’s not like if you end private prisons the prisoners disappear.’ Closing private prisons without reducing prisoner numbers would mean increasing public-prison capacity. In any case, the number of prisoners in private facilities is only 8% of the total prison population. And the Department of Justice can close only federal prisons. Twenty-seven states have contracts with private-prison companies. In 2017, only 23% of private prisoners were in federal prisons. Critics of mass incarceration should focus on the number of prisoners, not where they are held.” (“In Defence Of America’s Prison-Industrial Complex,” The Economist, 10/17/19)

  • The Economist: “Many Democratic Candidates Have Ambitious Criminal-Justice Plans; But There Is A Danger, Given The Difficulty Of Reform, That They Will Do No More Than Abolish Private Prisons And Claim Victory, Leaving The Underlying Problem Untouched.” (“In Defence Of America’s Prison-Industrial Complex,” The Economist, 10/17/19)

On The Myth Of The Private Sector’s Role In Mass Incarceration & Criminal Justice Reform

Vox: “Private Prisons Are Also A Response To Mass Incarceration, Not A Cause Of It.”

“So private companies really hold very little sway in America’s enormous prison system. Private prisons are also a response to mass incarceration, not a cause of it.” (German Lopez, “Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Are Pandering To Liberals With A Big Myth About Prisons,” Vox, 2/4/16)

  • Vox: “Moreover, There’s No Sign Private Prisons Have Even Perpetuated Mass Incarceration.”

    • “Moreover, there’s no sign private prisons have even perpetuated mass incarceration. Consider the push for criminal justice reform: If private prisons really hold a lot of sway over prison policies, why have bipartisan coalitions in most states — from California to Georgia — pushed criminal justice reform and reduced their incarcerated populations over the past several years? And why are bipartisan groups in the US Senate and House proposing reform that would cut down on the federal prison population? The reality is that criminal justice policies are driven by much broader concerns: the crime rate, and how lawmakers think they should work to reduce it without straining budgets.” (German Lopez, “Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Are Pandering To Liberals With A Big Myth About Prisons,” Vox, 2/4/16)

Reason Foundation Policy Analyst Austill Stuart: “[G]etting Rid Of Private Prisons Would Make Criminal Justice Reforms Much More Difficult To Achieve.”

“As private companies continue to provide services for jails and prisons, their profitability is the result of an increasing willingness by government corrections agencies to admit they need help. Instead of seeking to ban private prisons, these entities should be encouraged to devise modern, cutting-edge rehabilitation and job training practices that help reduce the prison population and recidivism rates. Getting the U.S. corrections system from its sad state to a more rehabilitative approach will be difficult, especially after decades of corrections policies that sought to punish inmates with long sentences. But solutions should solve problems, not exacerbate them. And getting rid of private prisons would make criminal justice reforms much more difficult to achieve.” (Austill Stuart, “Counterpoint: Private Prisons Can Play A Vital Role In Criminal Justice Reforms,” Inside Sources, 7/29/19)

Fordham University Law Professor & Criminal Justice Expert John Pfaff: “Mass Incarceration, And Mass Punishment More Broadly, Is A Public-Sector Failure, Not A Capitalist One.”

“Another major mistake among reformers is to get preoccupied with the private prison industry while ignoring the more significant and consequential role played by the public sector – and especially by correctional officer unions. The private sector is a relatively minor player in the criminal justice system, despite all the hand-wringing it induces. Mass incarceration, and mass punishment more broadly, is a public-sector failure, not a capitalist one. Which implies, in the end, that the real problem rests not with some shadowy cabal of financiers, but with us, the electorate.” (John Pfaff, “Locked Up,” The Baffler, July 2019)

  • Pfaff: “[I]t Ultimately Is The Public Sector, Not The Private, That Is At The Heart Of Mass Incarceration.” (John Pfaff, “Locked Up,” The Baffler, July 2019)

On The Private Sector Providing Solutions To States Facing Overcrowded Facilities

According To The Prison Policy Initiative, Less Than 8 Percent Of All Incarcerated People Are Held In Contractor-Operated Prisons.

“The second myth: Private prisons are the corrupt heart of mass incarceration; In fact, less than 8% of all incarcerated people are held in private prisons; the vast majority are in publicly-owned prisons and jails. Some states have more people in private prisons than others, of course, and the industry has lobbied to maintain high levels of incarceration, but private prisons are essentially a parasite on the massive publicly-owned system — not the root of it.” (Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019,” Prison Policy Initiative, 3/19/19)

According To Data From The U.S. Department Of Justice, At Year-End 2017, 24 States Had A Total Number Of Prisoners In Their Custody That Met Or Exceeded Their Minimum Number Of Beds.

“At year-end 2017, a total of 13 states and the BOP met or exceeded the maximum capacity of their prison facilities, and 24 states and the BOP had a total number of prisoners in their custody that met or exceeded their minimum number of beds.” (Jennifer Bronson and E. Ann Carson, “Prisoners In 2017,” U.S. Department Of Justice, Bureau Of Justice Statistics, April 2019)

Prison Litigation Expert Dr. Victor Lofgreen: “Private Contractors Help [States] Meet Needs In Ways That Are Economically Sound, Timely And Meet Required Standards Of Care.”

“However, some experts argue private prisons can help these states alleviate the burdens of an overcrowded prison system, in which public facilities can’t handle the volume. ‘Each state or local jurisdiction that utilizes private prison operation has its own unique financial circumstances, characteristics, and human service needs. Private contractors help meet needs in ways that are economically sound, timely and meet required standards of care,’ prison litigation expert Dr. Victor Lofgreen told the DCNF. ‘These goals are difficult to meet through standard governmental funding and capital building procedures,’ he added.” (Audrey Conklin, “2020 Candidates Are Pushing To End Private Prisons — Even Though Their States Use Them For Better Inmate Conditions,” The Daily Caller, 9/8/19)

Democrat & Republican State Legislators On “Why Contracting For Performance In Prison And Detention Management Is Worth A Closer Look”

Report By State Sen. Curtis Bramble (R-UT) & State Rep. Vernon Jones (D-GA): Private Contracting For Corrections And Detention “Provide[s] The Public With High-Quality Services In A Way That Is Fiscally Responsible And Highly Accountable.”

“A majority of states and the federal government currently choose to contract for performance in prison and detention management. Why do they do it? For the same reason government agencies contract for any other service: to provide the public with high-quality services in a way that is fiscally responsible and highly accountable. Contracting for performance allows government agencies to define the outcomes they want to see in corrections and detention management, select private-sector companies with the experience and expertise to deliver those outcomes, and hold them accountable for performance.” (Curtis Bramble and Vernon Jones, “Why Contracting For Performance In Prison And Detention Management Is Worth A Closer Look,” MTC Website)

On California’s Ban On Private Sector Corrections & Detention Facilities

The Orange County Register: California “Legislature And [Governor Gavin] Newsom Took A Fundamentally Inconsequential Stand Against For-Profit Prisons, While Doing Little To Improve Their Scandal-Plagued Public-But-Lucrative-For-Public-Employees Prison System.”

“Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 32, introduced by Asm. Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, which will end California’s use of for-profit prisons. … According to Reuters, the three private prisons in the state hold just 1,400 inmates compared to 115,000 locked in the government-run and public employee-staffed correctional institutions. … And incidentally: the state’s prison guards union spent over $3 million to help get Newsom elected governor. So sure, the Legislature and Newsom took a fundamentally inconsequential stand against for-profit prisons, while doing little to improve their scandal-plagued public-but-lucrative-for-public-employees prison system. That’s apparently what constitutes ‘progressive’ in Sacramento.” (Editorial, “The Hollow Symbolism Of Banning Private Prisons In California,” The Orange County Register, 10/16/19)

In 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court Ordered California To Take Steps To Ease Overcrowding In Its Prisons.

“The Supreme Court on Monday ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates or take other steps to ease overcrowding in its prisons to prevent ‘needless suffering and death.’ By a 5-4 vote, the high court told the nation’s largest state prison system to sharply cut its inmate population in stages over two years in one of the biggest prison release orders in U.S. history.” (James Vicini, “Supreme Court Orders California Prisoner Release,” Reuters, 5/23/11)

  • The Court Determined That California’s Prisons Had Fallen Below The Standard Of Decency Required By The Constitution.

    • “Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court majority that the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons had fallen below the standard of decency required by the Constitution. Kennedy cited suicidal inmates being held for prolonged periods in telephone booth-sized cages, backlogs of up to 700 prisoners waiting to see a doctor for care and as many as 54 inmates sharing a single toilet.” (James Vicini, “Supreme Court Orders California Prisoner Release,” Reuters, 5/23/11)
  • Reuters: “Kennedy Cited Suicidal Inmates Being Held For Prolonged Periods In Telephone Booth-Sized Cages, Backlogs Of Up To 700 Prisoners Waiting To See A Doctor For Care And As Many As 54 Inmates Sharing A Single Toilet.” (James Vicini, “Supreme Court Orders California Prisoner Release,” Reuters, 5/23/11)

  • At Time Of The Ruling, California’s 33 Prisons, Which Were Designed To Hold About 80,000 Inmates, Were Holding Approximately 145,000.

    • “California’s 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates and now have about 145,000.” (James Vicini, “Supreme Court Orders California Prisoner Release,” Reuters, 5/23/11) 

In 2013, California Turned To Private Sector Contractors In Order To Help Alleviate The State’s Overcrowded Prison Population.

“Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday responded to a federal court order to significantly reduce California’s prison population by proposing a $315 million plan to send inmates to private prisons and to empty county jail cells. The cost could reach $700 million over two years, with much of the money likely to come from a $1 billion reserve fund in the state budget.” (“Gov. Brown Proposes $315 Million Prison Plan To Send Inmates To Private Prisons,” The Associated Press, 8/27/13)


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