The Advocacy of Incarceration

PRIVATE PRISONS HAVE LONG been a dirty secret in the American criminal justice system, but in recent years their downsides have increasingly come to light. Last week, OpenSecrets.org reported on the economic costs for local municipalities when a private prison fails. Willacy County, a small rural county in Texas, is facing a serious budgetary issue after a riot devastated a local prison that had been run by a private prison company, Management Training Corp.

Management Training Corp.’s economic model with the Willacy County prison is similar to many across the country: the local, state, or Federal government contracts a private prison company to run a prison, and then the prison company pays local municipalities to house prisoners at that facility and for the utilities the prison uses. When a company like MTC pulls out, the local government loses a steady source of revenue and now must staff and run the prison themselves. This arrangement sounds like it makes sense for both the local government and the prison company, but it raises some serious ethical questions.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that private prison companies have a financial stake in keeping incarceration levels high (and indeed, the incarceration rate in America is 5-10 times greater than in Western Europe, per the Wall Street Journal). Indeed, as Salon reports, several states have contracts with private prisons that guarantee 95-100% occupancy rates in prisons run by private companies. This gives states incentive to incarcerate (disproportionately African American) individuals for petty crimes.

Private prison companies’ lobbying activity does little to disabuse the notion that they have a financial stake in high incarceration rates. Salon reports that Corrections Corporation of America has spent more than $13 million in state lobbying efforts, while the GEO Group, another private prison company, has spent more than $3.1 million. Meanwhile, OpenSecrets notes that private prison companies have spent more than $2 million lobbying Congress in 2014 alone.

Private prison companies’ lobbying efforts reveal the unsavory side of advocacy. While most companies will attempt to frame their goals as ultimately beneficial to the American public, few industries have a financial stake in ensuring that more Americans go to (and stay in) prison. While there may be cases where privately-run prisons can be beneficial, Willacy County’s situation and America’s astronomical incarceration rates show the perils of relying too heavily on privatizing public services.

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