Private vs Public Prisons – what’s the difference?

In August of this year, the Department of Justice announced that it aimed at ending the federal government’s use upon private prisons. Many people may not realize that the government often contracts prisons out to private companies – unless you are an avid watcher of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. So what does it mean to use a private company for incarceration – and what does it mean now that the trend is ending?

There are 14 federal prisons run by private companies in the United States currently. The DOJ plans to simply stop renewing their contracts, citing increased safety and security incidents per prison that those that are operated by the government (under the auspices of the Bureau of Prisons). Those prisoners will be redirected to the publicly run prisons, which have extra space given the reforms made to criminal justice in the federal system, including more discretionary sentencing, and additional programs to reduce recidivism and alternative programs addressing substance abuse. It is important to note, however, that this might be an optimistic plan. It is true that the number of federal prisoners is declining. However, government-run prisons are still overcapacity – up to 20% in some cases.

It is difficult to do a thorough comparison of privately run versus publicly run prisons. First, much of the overhead and costs of publicly run prisons are absorbed by other government agencies, lowering the cost (or at least the appearance of the cost) as compared to private prisons. Certainly, the way accounting is done for purposes of taxing the privately run prisons could affect how costs and deductions are accounted for. And there are also no good comparative samples to do an effective study – states can choose whether they privatize or not (and this DOJ memo is not binding on states). Further, many of the prisons have vastly different sizes, amenities, type of criminals housed, transportation and location issues, which make it difficult to do an accurate comparison.

The major issue that advocates of dismantling the for-profit prison system cite is the opacity of records available. In most cases, complaints and grievances are not released or available to the public, even after making records requests. That is because, as private corporations, they are protected from any requirement to release records, unlike those run by the Bureau of Prisons. Therefore, there is little readily available information about fights, assault rates, or other abuses upon prisoners in the private prison complex as opposed to the government-funded entities. The use of solitary confinement by private prisons was largely a secret until the ACLU interviewed hundreds of immigrants in private prisons. The findings indicated that dozens of people were placed in solitary confinement for weeks at a time simply because there were beds available, as opposed to the overcrowding in the general population sectors. This lack of transparency has been addressed (or attempted to be addressed) by several lawmakers, some of who have written bills requiring private prisons to be accountable in their record-keeping and record-releasing to the same degree as public prisons. These have all ultimately failed.
It remains to be seen whether and how prisoners will be safer upon the DOJ’s dissolution of privately-used prisons. It also will affect only a minimum of the prison population, given that the majority of states use private prisons, and are not bound by the DOJ’s mission. The bottom line is that private prisons aim to make a profit, which means they must make it as cheap as possible to house prisoners. While this can take a load off the average taxpayer, one has to wonder what expenses and costs privately-run prisons might be denying the prisoner in the name of profit.

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