For much of human history, various forms of punishment have been used in response to offenses against established law. Although the use of incarcerating an individual has been used throughout time, its use as a punishment is a modern idea. The United States, more than any other nation relies on the use of prison incarceration as a form of punishment. The explosion in prison populations in the U.S. has created the need for larger structures to lock away offenders. It seems inevitable that the need for an alternative method to government-owned and run institutions was likely to evolve.
The Constitution of the United States grants the government the authority to impose punishment on its citizens. However the question remains, does this right allow the same government to extend this authority to private corporations? Should offenders be housed in privately owned and operated institutions or is the right to punish a power strictly held by the government? If it is determined that this authority is non-transferable, then corporate prisons may be a violation against inmates’ constitutional rights.
The Reason Public Policy Institute is a think tank, focused specifically on public policy. This organization developed their research into a discussion dialogue, providing several stand points for government policy issues. In their research into private prisons, the Reason Public Policy Institute found that tougher crime policies and budget constraints have combined to create a problem in the nation’s prisons and jails. Federal and state governments are incarcerating more offenders by unwilling to spend increasing amounts of tax dollars to compensate this system adequately. The paradoxes in the realm of public security and crime and punishment have forced policy-makers to turn to the private sector to relieve the strain on the already over-crowded prison system.
The Oxford Companion to American Law estimates that by 2001 over 2 million people remained in incarceration, the rate of which jumped from 1 in 218 to 1 in 142 residents in the 1990s alone. This large influx in the prison population over a very short time period, due to the increasing use of prison as the sole form of punishment and the result of the “war on drugs”, has created a need for more prison space. To fill this need privatization of prisons has developed. Privatization moves the government’s function, responsibilities, and assets from the public to the private sector. Corporately owned prison facilities have fulfilled the governments demand for more, cheaper prison cells.
There is much debate for and against the use of such private correctional facilities. One issue involves the monetary gain that these companies stand to obtain from the continued and accelerated use of incarceration as a form of punishment. Phil Smith of the Covert Action Quarterly argues that these corporations of human imprisonment hold little ethical regard for the rehabilitation of individuals under their control. The corporate prison systems have been developed from large numerical human incarceration and as such, create a profit from its continued use. Larger profits may be had by its expanded use as prison inmate population rises and sentences increase. Get tough on crime laws equal larger income for these companies. Any policy toward reducing sentencing or alternate punishment would directly result in profit loss.
Smith also poses the question, are these facilities’ ability to supply adequate prisoner treatment if the focus remains on profit. These companies are able to provide these services at a largely reduced rate because they pay lower wages and limit the access to rehabilitative programs. However cost-cutting is not the main concern for the criminal justice system. This system was established to uphold punishments while also providing offenders the ability to reintegrate back into society.
Proponents seek to show how private prisons are the solution to over-crowding prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice’s research work entitled, Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons, may provide a look at this issue from the perspective of the policy-maker. Securing and humanely housing such a large population has placed an enormous burden on prison administrators as well as the federal, state, and local jurisdictions that must finance the institutional confinement. In 1987, the number of inmates incarcerated in privately operated correctional facilities worldwide was 3,100; by 1998 the number had risen to 132,000. In the United States today there are a total of 158 private correctional facilities. Proponents of privatization have suggested that allowing the facilities to be operated by the private sector could result in cost reductions of 20 percent.
A university study on the cost benefits provided by the use of such facilities, to the state or local government has determined that they are efficient cost-saving devises. Within this study, released by the APCTO (Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations), private prisons have proven to be effective in aiding states to keep their corrections budgets under control. They estimate that by introducing private prisons into states that are not currently utilizing them, can reduce state prison operating costs by an average of $20 million annually. By limiting the need to expand to meet the need for added inmate space, private prisons create the possibility for overall prison expenditures to remain the same over time.