For-profit justice.— What’s going on in the prison-industrial complex is almost literally unbelievable. Just read Punishment for Sale: Private Prisons, Big Business, and the Incarceration Binge (2010), by Donna Selman and Paul Leighton. Here’s a one-sentence summary of the monumental injustice: “While the United States has a long history of the rich getting richer while the poor get prison, the current situation—private prisons listed on the stock exchange and an expanding number of businesses profiting from the expansion of the criminal justice system—means that rich whites get richer from poor minorities being sent to prison.” In 1995 a Latino army veteran with three children was sentenced to a mandatory fifty years in prison for stealing some children’s videos on two occasions. The sort of thing that happens frequently.
How do private companies make profits by managing prisons? By viciously cutting costs more than governments can or will. The government pays them a per diem rate per prisoner, and the company does everything it can to reduce costs so that as much of the per diem rate as possible is kept as profit. (One major strategy is to slash labor costs.) The more prisoners are incarcerated, the more money the company makes. So the industry has an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as it has done effectively. It also favors crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, since they can be incarcerated.
In addition to the fees they charge governments, companies can make money from prison labor.
As for whether privatization saves taxpayers money, the research has been inconclusive. Some reports have found that it actually costs more money, while others have suggested that privatization yields savings of about 10 percent. But these reports haven’t factored in all the extra costs associated with privatization, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by various companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, renew contracts, deal with lawsuits and prison riots resulting from the terrible conditions in private prisons, etc. Companies have also been known to over-bill governments and not repay them.
In general, the more one reads about any kind of privatization, the more one sees what a bad idea it almost always is. –For one thing, it means less public oversight, i.e. less transparency, which allows for greater abuses. It’s anti-democratic. It also is typically just a giveaway to private business so it can make profits off the administration of functions that are supposed to benefit the public and have public input. For-profit punishment, for-profit education, for-profit health insurance, for-profit soldiering and policing, and for-profit divvying-up-of-the-natural-environment-to-corporations can be seen as good ideas only by a society, like the U.S., that is so completely under the thumb of big business it has lost all rational and moral sense.