Several years ago the news media was full of stories about America’s privatization of prisons. Numerous major media outlets ran coverage on an issue with vocal proponents and opponents coming from diverse and varied backgrounds. Politicians were even bringing the issue on the campaign trail with them. In the last few years the coverage of this important issue has seemingly dropped off the radar; however, given recent plot lines in a few major shows including the very popular Orange is the New Black, it appears prison privatization is once again becoming a hot topic.
Regardless of one’s views on the privatization of prisons, it has become abundantly clear that the way the current system is being operated is ripe for corruption and inherently flawed. One of the most publicized examples of the potential problems of privatizing prisons came to light in January 2009 out of rural Pennsylvania when two judges were charged with what became known as “Kids for Cash”. In a scheme almost too reprehensible to believe, two judges were accused to have accepted around 2.6 million dollars from a company running juvenile prisons in exchange for sentencing youth offenders to jail at the facilities owned by the company.
Once the investigation started the stories of youth offenders being sentenced to jail for minor crimes began to be heard more and more. Initially it appeared the cases would be resolved quickly based on both judges agreeing to enter pleas of guilty in exchange for a sentencing recommendation of seven years. However, shortly after one of the judges issued statements to a local paper stating he had not done anything wrong, a judge refused to accept the guilty pleas based on what he perceived to be a failure to actually admit guilt. Ultimately one of the judges entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to 17 ½ years. The judge who refused to admit guilt eventually went to trial. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 28 years.
Juvenile facilities are not the only privatized institutions to be shrouded in scandal. In February of this year two officials from Mississippi were indicted on a total of 49 charges stemming for kickbacks on private prison facilities. In that case, at least one of the officials entered a plea of guilty admitting to accepting more than $1 million dollars in cash and mortgage payments in exchange for sending government prison contracts to a specific company. Since the original indictment was handed down by the United States Attorney’s Office, additional individuals have been indicted and more may be on the way.
A recent report released by the Justice Policy Institute outlines the extent to which the private prison companies go to lobby for increased incarceration. While this is troubling for many reasons, perhaps most disturbing is the efforts of the private prison lobby seem to be effective. As part of its study the Justice Policy Institute analyzed the differences in private versus public prisons and the results were alarming. For example, the study found that the number of people generally incarcerated increased by 16 percent; however, the number of individuals incarcerated in federal private prisons increased by 120 percent. This increased number of individuals in private prisons does not appear to be decreasing the amount the government is spending on incarcerating individuals; in fact, the opposite appears to be true as reported the reported Government spending on incarceration has continued to grow.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the privatization of prisons is a growing problem not only for the individuals who are incarcerated but also for society as a whole. The privatization of prisons has been riddled with scandal as at least some companies seem more than willing to provide illegal financial incentive to public officials for the coveted lucrative prison contracts. Add into that the reported issues of abuse of prisoners and the increasing cost of incarceration and it is clear that there needs to be a change in what has become the business of sending people to jail.