The growth of for-profit prisons and a broken criminal justice system have worked together to give the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The U.S. contains 5 percent of the world’s population, yet a full 25 percent of its prisoners. Incarceration is extremely costly, not just monetarily, but on society at large.
Taxpayers spend $63.4 billion on incarceration each year. To keep an inmate in prison for a full year, it costs between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on location. The explosion of inmates in the past couple of decades has led to court ordered efforts to reduce prison overcrowding. Seeing an opportunity, a new industry of privatized prisons sprang up.
Private companies such as the GEO Group and Correctional Services Corporation own and operate prisons to which state-run jails can send inmates. The problem with these facilities, however, is that their primary interest is in turning a profit. For private prisons, this means filling beds. As a result, these facilities provide very few rehabilitative services causing high recidivism rates.
Many of these private prisons lack adequately trained staff as well. In 2009, a prison ran by the GEO Group in Pennsylvania closed operations following the deaths of a number of inmates due to potential staff negligence. The Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, owned by the GEO Group, has also seen its fair share of controversy. In November 2010 a lawsuit was filed citing guards engaging in sexual activity with inmates as well as smuggling drugs into the facility.
It is no surprise that these firms have developed powerful political lobbies. Since they profit off of longer prison sentences for inmates, nonviolent criminals are given inordinate time in jail. In Louisiana, where the incarceration rate is the highest in the nation, the maximum sentence for writing a bad check is 10 years.
Harsh sentences for drug violations, including “soft” drugs such as marijuana, play a major role in the incarceration epidemic. Ever since these laws were implemented, youths and minorities have been disproportionately targeted. Throwing young people into a criminal justice system with high recidivism rates essentially creates a generation of repeat offenders. Of course, that is exactly what for-profit prisons aim to do.
Proponents of privatized prisons argue that they are necessary to curb the problem of overcrowding in state and federal prisons. Overcrowding is absolutely a serious problem, but solving it with for-profit prisons is simply a backwards solution. For certain crimes, alternatives to incarceration should be explored and sentences for nonviolent crimes must be reduced. Doing so would free up money previously spent on housing inmates to spend on rehabilitative services.
Norway’s prison system, for example, offers inmates amenities and activities meant to readjust them to society. Some have criticized Norway for being too lenient on its prisoners, but a quick glance at the statistics shows that their recidivism rate is as little as one-third of ours.
The well-being of our prisoners is directly related to the well-being of our populace. Neither one of those should be determined by companies whose sole motive is to make a profit.