Private Prisons: The False Promises

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

ACLU’s Banking on Bondage report gives us a history of the private prison industry in the United States and reveals detailed accounts of the questionable tactics the industry uses to influence criminal justice policies. It also documents that many of the “advantages” claimed by the prison industry to market itself are not even necessarily true.  We don’t think mass incarceration is ever a good idea, but at a time when states are strapped for cash and crime rates are low, it certainly doesn’t make good sense to continue to throw taxpayer money at the private prison industry – especially when private prisons don’t always save the state money or benefit local economies.  Worse, for-profit prisons have very limited incentive to lower recidivism rates and effectively rehabilitate prisoners.

We’ll take a look at the prison industry’s false promises:

  • Private Prisons Save Taxpayer Dollars: Private prison corporations offer themselves as a “solution” to fixing budget crises by saving “hardworking taxpayers’ dollars.”  For example, the GEO Group claims a 20 to 30 percent cost savings in facility development and a 10 to 20 percent cost savings in facility management.  Some reports have shown cost savings, but not all of them have – and the reliability of at least one of these studies has been questioned due to the researcher’s connection to the private prison industry. Based on research done in Hawaii, Arizona, and New Jersey, the ACLU report shows “most objective cost studies show little or no cost saving to taxpayers coupled with an increased safety risk” and that housing inmates in private prisons “may be more costly.” The only real way to save hardworking taxpayer money is to find alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, something the private prison industry lobbies directly against!
  • Private Prisons Benefit Local Economies: Private prison companies argue that private prisons spur economic growth, offering jobs to residents and increasing revenue for towns.  Again, the ACLU report highlights studies that have shown that opening new prisons is not “worth the investment for struggling rural communities.”  For example, some counties only receive $2 per prisoner per day from the private prison operator, all while the prison might be obtaining subsidies and receiving municipal services like water and sewer services, which cost taxpayers money.  In contrast, the report highlights a private corporation in Arizona making almost $64 dollars per prisoner per day, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) raking in almost $90 per day for each detained immigrant in a San Diego facility.  Compare that to the $2 mentioned above, and it is clear that most of the money is not being returned to the counties and towns.
  • Private Prisons Rehabilitate Prisoners and Reduce Recidivism: When profit is your main goal, creating programming to help a large part of your prime market population never need your services again would not be a good model.  Effective rehabilitation would do just that to the private prison industry.  In order to make more money, some private prisons cut corners by eliminating training programs that would promote rehabilitation. Some so-called cost-savings may also make prison environments even more violent and dangerous through over-crowding and under-trained guards.  The report documents many religious groups’ opposition to private prisons, mainly because the for-profit model is in direct odds with effective rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The ACLU report clearly shows that private prisons are not the answer for our criminal justice system.  It reveals that private prison corporations,  through their powerful lobbying efforts and  fluffy yet false public relations campaigns, create false impressions to influence public opinion and policy makers trying to make educated and smart decisions about incarceration and lower cost, effective alternatives. We urge you to share this report widely, and to get more involved with ending private prisons in Texas.

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