Why Private Prisons Are Damaging to the Correctional System
What would the criminal justice system be like if it was privatized? Could you imagine if, for every arrest an officer made, they got paid? Or if, for every conviction a judge or district attorney won, they received some sort of commission? Under privatization, our justice system would become an “arrest-everyone” and “convict them all” environment driven by the incentive to get paid!
This sounds absurd and highly problematic–so why does privatization exist within the corrections system? According to a 2018 report, the U.S. has the world’s largest private prison population, housing 8.5 percent (128,063 inmates) of the total 1.5 million people housed in state and federal prisons nationwide.
These private prisons, which are publicly traded on the stock exchange, are making money based on how many inmates they house. The government pays them a stipend, most often based on the number of prisoners they house. These companies need inmates to be in operation, essentially making incarcerated people a required commodity for financial gain.
Let me clarify a few things: I am a correctional officer for New York State and have never worked in a private prison. I am paid to work in a publicly owned prison, but my salary is not based or dependent on how many inmates we have in our custody. State prisons are not in the business of making money off inmates.
I am obviously not a big supporter of private prisons, but I do view prisons—and the corrections system as a whole—to be necessary. Prisons exist to rehabilitate low-level offenders and keep convicted murderers and rapists away from the rest of society. That being said, I have a strong moral and ethical conviction against using inmates, even the worst of the worst, as a way to make money.
Private Prisons Have Little Incentive to Rehabilitate Inmates
Our justice system often requires convicted offenders to pay restitution by spending time in a correctional facility. However, the mission of correctional institutions should be to reform and prepare inmates to re-enter society, not just house them while they serve their sentences. I’m not naïve; I have worked in corrections for 14 years and I know how difficult it is to actually reform inmates, but it should always remain the ultimate objective of our correctional system.
Counter to this objective, private prisons do not have incentives to reform or rehabilitate inmates. The longer an inmate stays in a private facility, or the more times they re-offend and return, the more private institutions make off them.
I could not find much evidence of rehabilitation or educational programs being run in private prisons. After reviewing the websites of several private prison companies, I only found one report supporting claims of rehabilitation programs. But the skeptic in me has several questions. Why would a private prison put policies in place that would essentially harm their business model? In other words, if they truly tried to lower recidivism rates by offering educational or re-entry programs, wouldn’t that effort potentially put them out of business? Stockholders wouldn’t like that.
I also found more supporting evidence that private prisons aren’t particularly focused on rehabilitation. A collection of studies from around the country found that recidivism rates are higher among inmates housed in private-sector facilities. For example, a study conducted in Minnesota from 2007 to 2009 found that inmates housed in a privately owned prison had up to a 13 percent higher chance of being re-arrested and 22 percent higher likelihood of being re-convicted compared to those in a public prison. Oklahoma did a similar study and found that the recidivism rate was 17 percent higher for inmates in private prisons. Studies in Florida and Mississippi had similar results as well.
Private Prisons Aren’t Good Employers for Correctional Officers
Private prisons may not offer the best career paths for correctional officers. I did some brief research into the differences in pay, training, working conditions, and turnover rates and found that public institutions, in general, offer better opportunities for correctional officers (COs).
I did a brief review of pay scale using Indeed.com and found that correctional officers who work in private prisons are seemingly paid considerably less than those who work for publicly owned prisons. For example, a CO working for GEO Group makes $13.99/ hour, or $27,952/year. Compare that to a CO working for the New York State Department of Correction and Community Supervision who makes, on average, $59,235/year. Granted, there is a range of salaries and, in some instances, employees in private prisons do make more than those who work in public prisons. But, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, private officers do not make as much as public officers, reaching upwards of $9,000 a year difference, depending on location.
Less Training Opportunities
Training requirements and opportunities also vary greatly between private and public facilities. According to the Federal Probation publication, COs in the public sector are required to have 58 more hours of pre-service training (232 hours) than those in the private sector (174 hours). Officers who work in public facilities are often peace officers and receive training in firearms, powers of arrest, chemical agents, and more. Whereas officers who work in private facilities generally only receive the state’s minimum training requirement for private security officers, which woefully underprepares them to respond to a major incident.
More Dangerous Working Conditions
Evidence shows that private prisons are more dangerous than public ones. A report from the Office of the Inspector General found that private, contract prisons have more incidents per capita than publicly owned institutions. The report found that “contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones annually on average as the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] institutions. Contract prisons also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”
Higher CO Turnover Rates
All of the above factors may contribute to higher officer turnover rates in the private sector, which are estimated to be around three times higher than turnover rates in the public sector. According to the Federal Probation publication, the average correctional officer turnover rate (the total number of officers leaving in a specific year) in the private sector is 43 percent. The study found that 71 percent of those individuals resigned, 0.6 percent retired, 21 percent were terminated or dismissed, and seven percent transferred to another facility.
In comparison, the public sector reported an average correctional officer turnover rate of just 15 percent. Causes for turnover include 63 percent of officers resigned, 15 percent retired, and 22 percent left for unknown reasons. Comparing the two sectors, private sector prisons had approximately 9 percent more staff resign and 15 percent fewer staff retire.
Further Efforts to Eliminate Private Prisons Needed
There has been some recognition of the pitfalls and dangers of allowing privately owned prisons to profit from housing inmates. In New York State, for example, legislators have banned private prisons from operation. In 2018, the state took it a step further and stopped investing any money into the private prison industry. While such legislative measures are important, they must be widely implemented to truly eliminate private prisons. Allowing prisons to profit off incarcerated persons is a disservice to the mission of the correctional system, to the officers it employs, and to the communities they protect.
About the Author: Jason Whitehead has served as a correctional officer with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision since 2005. He has also been an Adjunct Professor in Criminal Justice at Morrisville State College since 2016. He has a Master’s of Intelligence Studies with a Concentration in Criminal Intelligence from American Military University. He also has a Bachelor’s of Technology in Criminal Justice from Morrisville State College and an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Onondaga Community College. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.