The Prison-Industrial Complex

Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. The nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers

Private prison companies are the most obvious, the most controversial, and the fastest-growing segment of the prison-industrial complex. The idea of private prisons was greeted with enthusiasm during the Reagan and Bush Administrations; it fit perfectly with a belief in small government and the privatization of public services. The Clinton Administration, however, has done far more than its Republican predecessors to legitimize private prisons. It has encouraged the Justice Department to place illegal aliens and minimum-security inmates in private correctional facilities, as part of a drive to reduce the federal work force. The rationale for private prisons is that government monopolies such as old-fashioned departments of corrections are inherently wasteful and inefficient, and the private sector, through competition for contracts, can provide much better service at a much lower cost. The privatization of prisons is often described as a "win-win" outcome. A private-prison company generally operates a facility for a government agency, or builds and operates its own facility. The nation's private prisons accepted their first inmates in the mid-1980s. Today at least twenty-seven states make use of private prisons, and approximately 90,000 inmates are being held in prisons run for profit.

The living conditions in many of the nation's private prisons are unquestionably superior to conditions in many state-run facilities. At least forty-five state prison systems are now operating at or above their intended capacity. In twenty-two states prisons are operating under court-ordered population caps. In fifteen states prison conditions are being monitored by the courts. Life in the aging, overcrowded prisons operated by many state agencies is dangerous and degrading. Most of the 34,000 state inmates currently being held in the nation's jails for lack of available prison cells live in conditions that are even worse. Private prisons tend to be brand-new, rarely overcrowded, and less likely to house violent offenders. Moreover, some private prisons offer programs, such as drug treatment and vocational training, that a number of state systems have cut back. And yet something inherent in the idea of private prisons seems to invite abuse.

The economics of the private-prison industry are in many respects similar to those of the lodging industry. An inmate at a private prison is like a guest at a hotel—a guest whose bill is being paid and whose check-out date is set by someone else. A hotel has a strong economic incentive to book every available room and encourage every guest to stay as long as possible. A private prison has exactly the same incentive. The labor costs constitute the bulk of operating costs for both kinds of accommodation. The higher the occupancy rate, the higher the profit margin. Although it might seem unlikely that a private prison would ever try to keep an inmate longer than was necessary for justice to be served, New York State's experience with the "fee system" during the nineteenth century suggests that the temptation to do so is hard to resist. Under the fee system local sheriffs charged inmates for their stay in jail. A 1902 report by the Correctional Association of New York harshly criticized this system, warning that judges might be inclined to "sentence a man to jail where he may be a source of revenue to a friendly sheriff." Whenever the fee system was abolished in a New York county, the inmate population dropped—by as much as half. Last year a Prudential Securities report on private prisons described some of the potential risks for the industry: a falling crime rate, shorter prison sentences, a move toward alternative sentences, and changes in the nation's drug laws. Nonetheless, the report concluded that "the industry appears to have excellent prospects."

Private-prison companies can often build prisons faster and at lower cost than state agencies, owing to fewer bureaucratic delays and less red tape. And new prisons tend to be much less expensive to operate than the old prisons still used in many states. But most of the savings that private-prison companies offer are derived from the use of nonunion workers. Labor represents 60 to 80 percent of the operating costs at a prison. Although private-prison companies are now moving into northern states and even signing agreements with some labor unions, the overwhelming majority of private-prison cells are in southern and southwestern states hostile to unions. Correctional officers in these private prisons usually earn lower wages than officers employed by state governments, while receiving fewer benefits and no pension. Some private-prison companies offer their uniformed staff stock options as a retirement plan; the long-term value of the stock is uncertain. The sort of cost-cutting imposed on correctional officers does not extend to managers and administrators. They usually earn much more than their counterparts in the public sector—a fact that greatly increases the potential for conflicts of interest and official corruption.

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Eric Schlosser is a correspondent of The Atlantic.

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