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Private Prisons—Public Need

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Martin P. Sellers
October 18, 2021

Are private prisons still necessary in America? The unequivocal answer is a resounding, “YES!” There has been much written about privatization of prisons and whether it is still in the best interest of America to continue to contract with private companies to house prisoners. The best argument for supporting the continuation of private prisons, if nothing else, is that they work and they are not hampered by the difficulties public agencies often experience! If there is a need for change, it would be for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to do a better job of monitoring, tracking, data collection and information analysis of all aspects of the private prison industry.

Background

The privatization movement has been important and useful to governments and the private sector as the movement has evolved over the years. Although President Reagan’s and President Bush’s administration policies for prison overcrowding were limited, a consistent theme was that federal, state and local governments could overcome the corrections crisis using privatization methods, one of which was allowing private companies to build or maintain facilities to house prisoners. Privatization of government services, including corrections and a host of other prison services, including training, meal contracting and education, have served Americans well. The policymaking process supports privatization, states and local governments are supportive of private prisons and the taxpayers reap a benefit from the competitive forces that privatization brings to bear.

Positives and Negatives

There are 2.2 million inmates in prisons, penitentiaries and jails in the United States. Prison overcrowding continues to be a problem. One of the main reasons for the use of private companies to manage and house prisoners is to reduce overcrowding. Recent academic articles have listed reasons for and against continuing with, or growing, the private prison movement. On the down side, for example, in the Mcnamara article, the authors list concerns over lack of following best practices, security issues versus private motives, and alleged higher amount of violence in private prisons. On the upside are the facts of lower costs incurred by private companies, contracts with private companies that can be ended when the need is gone, staff being better trained and that private companies, since they are housing less violent inmates, have less problems managing them.

There are many who believe that holding prisoners can and should only be a government or public function. This thinking is based mainly on the idea that governments are supported by state and federal constitutions that are explicit about inmate control, use of force when necessary or determining how to restrain, or even render immobile, inmates when the need arises. The United States Constitution and most state constitutions are not clear and concise documents and do not spell out the boundaries of privatization. In addition, the War on Drugs that began in the 1970s was one of the initiators for contracting with private companies for housing inmates. The thinking was that private companies could work quickly and more successfully toward lowering or eliminating drug addiction as well as remediating mental health issues by pursuing education programs that public prisons had difficulty developing and maintaining. Private companies can hire staff and guards quickly, experiment with new and novel programs, train staff faster and determine the best ratio of staff-to-inmates so as to limit some of the issues that public prisons are saddled with. Other benefits of the use of private companies for managing inmates include increased jobs in communities where private prisons operate, available input by community groups and chambers of commerce that can ease tension between community and incarceration, close monitoring of the number of prison beds needed at any given time and the ease of repurposing private facilities when prison populations decline.

Other advantages are that the market regulates the price of keeping prisoners housed and fed and provided with healthcare through private sector competitive contracts. The public prison system, alongside the private prison system, allows for managing prison overcrowding. Decisionmaking about prison work, food issues, exercise, visitations and work release can be made quickly, and tracking of data made more rigorous. Also, there is evidence that local guards are more educated, so promotion potential is improved. Finally, contracting for prison management reduces the need for the building of more public prisons, which is always a taxpayer nightmare.

Conclusion

There is very little by way of in-depth research that focuses on the utility, propriety, efficiency and effectiveness of the use of private companies to house and manage inmates. Discussions regarding disadvantages of private prisons are born out of limited information about levels of violence, costs, transparency and staff and guard education and pay. Unless there are clear reasons for returning the prison system to public facilities alone, the private prison system is an alternative that helps mitigate problems that were existent in the past. They will continue to be a relevant aid to public administration in the future.


Author: Martin P. Sellers, PhD, MPA, MBA, is Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tennessee. He led the creation of the MPA program at LMU in 2015 which went fully online in 2019. Before academics, he worked in all four levels of government, city, county, state and national, including a stint in the US Department of Agriculture. In addition, during a year as Dean of Research at LMU, he was able to encourage collaboration between diverse groups and develop pathways for collaborative scholarship. He may be reached at [email protected] and @martysellers.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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