The University should divest from private prisons, argued three speakers at a Feb. 6 panel hosted by Students for Prison Education and Reform and Princeton Private Prison Divest. The panelists discussed the history of prison privatization, the results of privatization in terms of efficiency and human rights, and the ethical implications of incentivizing incarceration.
“There are two stories we tell ourselves when we talk about privatization,” said Christopher Petrella, a lecturer and writing specialist at Bates College, who began the discussion. “There’s the brief technocratic history, that for-profit prison companies were minted in the early eighties. Then there’s another story.”
He went on to argue that incentives for incarceration have existed for far longer than the past four decades and are intertwined with racial discrimination.
“When private prisons were being developed, one of the constants has been the way that the contracts make it explicit that this is about trafficking human bodies,” Carl Takei, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, added. “Generally, for example, private prison contracts specify that the federal government will deliver a guaranteed amount for, let’s say, 1,500 units to the prison, with additional compensation for each additional unit delivered.”
“[The prison industry] is based on the idea of turning a profit on something that is not actually a real market and is a trafficking of human beings,” he added.
The panelists also agreed that the economic benefits of privatizing prisons have not been proven.
Takei explained that the free market model does not apply to prisons because of high barriers to entry. Corporations must not only have sufficient capital to create facilities and security systems; they must also have political power and connections with government officials. As a result, the private prison market is effectively a duopoly, with two major corporations — Core Civic, formerly known as the Correction Corporation of America, and the GEO Group, Inc. — controlling the vast majority of the market.
“There is no invisible hand functioning here,” Takei said. With minimal competition, private prisons have little incentive to innovate but a major incentive to cut costs.
As a result of this structure, private prisons have provided little economic benefit, Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a research organization dedication to criminal justice and immigration reform, argued.
“There is very little evidence not curated by economists who are funded by the industry itself that supports the notion that much, if any, money is saved by privatizing,” she said.
Greene argued that other purported benefits of privatization have also yet to be proven by research, adding that the private sector has failed to make prisons more effective than the government can. Oft-cited arguments regarding cross-fertilization — that public prisons would also benefit by adapting the more effective techniques that private prisons have pioneered — are also unsupported by research, Greene added.
“I have never found a non-industry funded, transparent and methodologically sound study that unimpeachably proves that private prisons save taxpayer money,” Petrella noted.
Petrella added that private prisons exempt themselves from housing high-cost inmates in order to maximize profit, reading 14 potential reasons for inmate exemption. Reasons included being over age 65 or having a major illness.
“The jury is back in. These people have been operating now since the mid-80s,” Greene said. “The claims on which they built their industry have basically, with the exception of research studies bankrolled by the industry [have been disproven]… there’s little to no evidence to support those claims.”
“The problem with the private prison industry in this country is that from the very beginning it has been the enabler of bad prison policy, bad public policy,” Petrella said. “It becomes the default alternative when there is overcrowding.”
“When you’re talking about comparing private prisons to public prisons: one thing that does not exist in the public sector is the deliberate subversion of oversight in order to maximize profit,” Takei said.
“One of the easiest ways to cut costs if you’re trying to make profit is to reduce staff costs,” he added. This results in poor supervision and higher levels of violence, contraband, and escape. Takei’s legal organization also found that CCA was systematically understaffing their prisons and falsifying records in order to maximize profits.
Petrella added in addition that private prisons are less effective because they are isolated from the communities they are based in.
“After Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, the Department of Justice investigated and published a report where they identified a number of violations at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department,” he said. “They also made various recommendations to prevent this thing from happening. One of their recommendations is to ensure that officers in Ferguson [Police Department] come from Ferguson.”
An audience member asked the panelists to identify the primary ethical reason the University should divest from private prisons.
“Divestment broadly construed will help restore Princeton’s historical entanglement with the slave legacy,” Petrella said. “In conjunction, divesting from companies that specifically prop up immigrant detention facilities helps push back, symbolically and materially, against Woodrow Wilson’s legacy.”
“Investigative journalism has shown the power institutions like Princeton have to put this issue back in the mainstream,” Takei added.
The panel, titled “Incentivizing Incarceration: A Panel on Private Prisons,” took place in McCormick 101 and was co-sponsored by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, Princeton University, and the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.