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The private prison business, as modernity knows it, emerged in the mid-1980s. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was the first to privatize a correctional institution in Hamilton County, TN (Clear, Reisig, and Cole 257). The privatization meant that the government granted a private operator the right to run the correction facility for the first time in history. The questions of safety, efficacy, and efficiency have started to arise immediately after the privatization practice came into being. Today, although opinions differ, there is a solid body of evidence contradicting the initial claims of privatized institutions’ safety, efficacy, and efficiency in many respects.
The safety concerns are quite understandable with regard to correctional facilities. The purpose of jails is to confine the offenders so as to ensure their safety, that of the prison personnel, visitors, and society in general. At that, “safety” is regarded as insurance that the inmates do not commit violence against other prisoners or stakeholders and are unable to escape. Supporters of the privatized prison systems argue for the safety of the latter being superior to that of the public institutions.
There is an opinion that, because such institutions are privately funded and operate for profit, there is a strong incentive factor ensuring safety. Violence and escapes are too costly for them to handle in the long run, which is why such prisons do their best to secure their facilities. There is, however, an opposing view: although it is agreed that privatized institutions make the safety of the facilities their priority, the opponents state that they do so at the expense of other operational aspects.
Research demonstrates that private prisons tend to have fewer personnel at hand (Siegel and Bartollas 156). The resources that they do have are reported to be less well-trained than those subsidized by the government, which increases the danger of assaults and escapes. All that speaks to the disfavor of privatized facilities. With scarcer and poorer-trained correction personnel, such institutions do not seem to have much to rely on except incarceration; from that viewpoint, private prisons’ efficacy seems to be just as questionable.
The issue of efficacy is critical for the public vs. private argument, considering the punitive and rehabilitative role of prisons as a social institute. Here, efficacy denotes the prisons’ capability to both punish the offenders and restore their social skills (Le Vay 15). Therefore, the main idea of imprisonment, rather than merely punishing, is to allow inmates (as human beings and parts of human society although temporarily deprived of this status) to continue functioning as its members. Rehabilitation is known to reduce the rates of violence and decrease the risk of relapse, which makes it generally effective as a restoration practice.
Proponents of private corrections systems suggest that the profit incentive drives them to invest in treating the inmates well and adopting rehab programs because dealing with violence can be costlier in the long run. However, evidence suggests that the main expense item in public prisons is the security of the buildings and cells, which is ensured at the expense of commodities like food and healthcare. Additionally, rehabilitation officers are scarce and poorly-trained, which does not speak for the humane treatment of private prison inmates. Studies have shown that poor treatment is more likely to result in relapses than rehabilitation, which casts doubt on the efficacy of private prisons (Mason 12).
One of the strongest argument points for the privatization is their self-proclaimed efficiency – in other words, the supposition that it costs less to run a private institution than a government-subsidized.
In this respect, the proponents refer to a body of research conducted in individual states and nationwide, which demonstrates substantial cost savings. For instance, a study conducted in 1997 in Arizona found that average daily costs per inmate are 17% lower in private than government prisons (McFarland, McGowan, and O’Toole par. 15-17). On the national scale, as the studies reported, in 1998-1999, the average costs per inmate were about 14% higher in government than in privatized institutions (McFarland, McGowan, and O’Toole par. 15-17).
However, such evidence may have been skewed because researchers, either intentionally or inadvertently, tended to overlook important factors such as cost of contract negotiation, which encompasses proposal-gathering, endurance, healthcare, etc. Subsequent studies, such as the one conducted in 2012, took all these aspects into consideration; when every potential expense item was accounted for, the analysis did not evidence public prisons to make any significant cost-effective difference (Henrichson and Delaney 68). Additionally, healthcare is reported to be one of the expense items where private prisons sometimes corner-cut; thus, even if some marginal cases prove to be more efficient, they are probably doing it at the expense of the inmates’ well-being.
To conclude, private prisons have not proved either safer or more effective and efficient in the long run. Therefore, the conception of a private institution operating more cost-effectively, safely, and efficiently than a public one, while at the same time creating profit, has not proved relevant in this case.
Clear, Todd R., Michael D. Reisig, and George F. Cole. American Corrections. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
Henrichson, Christian, and Ruth Delaney. “The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.” Federal Sentencing Reporter 25.1 (2012): 68-80. Print.
Le Vay, Julian. Competition for prisons: Public or private? Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2015. Print.
Mason, Cody. “Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America.” The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project, 2012. Web.
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McFarland, Stephen, Chris McGowan, and Tom O’Toole. “Special Project Summary.” Restructuring Local Government. Cornell University, 2002. Web.
Siegel, Larry J., and Clemens Bartollas. Corrections Today. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.