The number of incarcerated people in America has more than quadrupled since 1980. As a result, a handful of states have turned to private prisons to help deal with the high costs of incarceration.
Although the record levels of incarceration are harming the nation economically, the private prison industry is thriving on them. There are currently 130 private prisons in the country that are responsible for six percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners, not including local prisoners.
The private prison industry seized the lucrative opportunity as incarceration rates increased. Notably, the number of inmates they held captive increased seventeen-fold from 1990-2009. The yields were high as one of the largest firms, Corrections Corporation of America, earned over $1.5 billion. There is no doubt that the industry has a gained a lot of influence over the prison system.
For-profit prisons have become as influential as many major lobbies including big oil and big pharma. Industries have been known to spend millions on swaying legislation and empowering favorable candidates into office. This means that for-profit prison companies are indirectly supporting policies that imprison more Americans and immigrants. The importance of these policies to the industry are a reflection of their values, which are business oriented.
It shows that the prisons revolve around profit, not rehabilitation. Their support of laws that maintain the high imprisonment rates show that they are not as focused on the true purpose of prison: rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Nearly two-thirds of prison contracts require the governments to maintain 90 percent occupancy.
With an incentive for incarceration, there is more room for unjust imprisonment. Perhaps the initial influx of inmates is the problem that needs to be addressed. If we can reduce the amount of unnecessary incarcerations, there will be less of a need for for-profit prisons.
With increasing influence and prominence, the amount of regulation that the government has over these third party prisons should be a concern. What kind of environment are we putting our civilians in? Are they being treated in a humane manner? Empirical studies have shown a heightened level of violence among prisoners in private institutions. This could seriously weaken the prisons by causing high employee turnover rates and dependence on inexperienced guards.
What we need is a prison system that thrives on creating rehabilitated citizens, not a system that is highly dependent on incarcerating our population. Although it is a cost effective alternative for the government, it does not share the same goal as a state or federal prison. Rather, it could be detrimental to society if we maintain these high incarceration rates.