The United States ranks as the country with the most inmates, boasting of over 2.4 million inmates, which amounts to over 600,000 more inmates than there are in the runner-up country China. That’s a whole lot of number for the government to handle in her prisons, and similar situations were what led the government to opt for the privatization of the public prisons in the 1980s. This was around the time that the United States was all about the War on Drugs, and criminals were thrown into prisons by the hour. Not long after, the prisons started becoming overpopulated, and there became a need for public prisons to enter into a contract with other organizations to take care of, and confine prisoners.
Though the first private prison was in the 1800s, this era marked the evolution of private prisons, and the status never went back. The process was gradual, but it was consistent; from obtaining contracts to handle the medical care, inmate transportation, inmate skill training and provision of food services, these private organizations found a window for expansion and took it. And that led to entire prisons being established and run by private firms; more and more private prisons sprang up over the years.
In 2016, the Bureau of Prisons debated shutting down all private prisons in the United States, as prison populations were shrinking. But thanks or no thanks to Trump’s campaign strategy which focused on anti-immigration, law and order; prison populations started shooting up again, and private prisons became relevant once again.
For the government, it was a win-win situation; public prisons get decongested, and apparently, private prisons seems to be more cost-effective. Nevertheless, there are some differences between private and public prisons, which we will look into in bits, to clear some confusions people have about them.
These are the long-standing form of correctional facilities, which are operated and owned by either the local, state or federal government. Across the United States, there are about 3,283 local jails, 1,719 state prisons and 102 federal prisons. This is in addition to civil commitment centers, immigration detention facilities, military prisons and more than 900 juvenile correctional facilities spread across the country.
Funding and Costs
The money used in running public prisons is sourced from tax payer’s money. On the average, it costs about $31,000 of tax payer’s money to house an inmate, with New York spending about $69,000 for each inmate annually.
Correctional facilities, from prisons to county jails, run by the local, state or federal government, are all bound by various laws to construct and maintain their facilities according to stipulated standards. Hence, various correctional institutions at different levels are designed to be compatible with different types of offenders, for which their structures can harbor.
Take the federal prisons system; for example, there are the juvenile prisons, minimum security prisons, low-security prisons, medium security prisons, high-security prisons (maximum and supermax prisons) and administrative security facilities. For each of these prisons, offenders can be sent to any based on the gravity of their offense, affiliations with disruptive groups, terms of the sentencing, years allotted and prisoner’s history. A sex offender will not be sent to a minimum prison, and violent prisoners with past escape attempts will be gladly welcomed in higher security prisons.
Staffing and Security
Despite the downturn of things recently, with public prisons becoming more understaffed, they still maintain a higher staff to inmate ratio. Additionally, the prison officials at public prisons receive more prison management training, and with higher pays.
Consequently, public prisons offer more security, both in structure and accumulated strength of the guards, resulting in minimal prisoner assaults and prison riots when compared to privately owned or operated prisons.
Public prisons are bound by law to make all information concerning the prisons or detention centers available to the public – without holding anything back unless classified. The administration is answerable for anything that happens to the inmates, as well as the conditions surrounding the confinement of the inmates.
These are mostly privately owned or privately operated confinement facilities which have been contracted by the state, local or federal government for the incarceration of some state and federal level offenders. This is to aid in the decongestion of public prisons, as well as reduce the stress on the prison management.
When a private prison is said to be privately operated; it implies that the prison might not be necessarily owned by a private firm, rather a private firm handles the day-to-day operations of the said prison. The operations may include staffing, supply procurement, effecting discipline in prisoners, ensuring that necessary prison programs are made available, etc. A firm may become in charge of these operations by submitting a desirable bid to a local, state or federal government for the management of their facilities.
Funding and Costs
Private prisons receive as much money as the number of inmates they house. In most, if not all cases, the government pays a monthly rate to the administration of private prisons. In Texas, for example, it is estimated that the state government pays about $27 to $30 per day per prisoner housed in a private prison.
Though private prisons are willing to house more inmates, to earn more; it doesn’t mean that they are open to all forms of inmates. Due to the attempt at being cost-effective while maximizing profit, private prisons do not necessarily possess all necessary facilities or manpower to handle notorious criminals. To this effect, private prison systems are mostly compatible with the housing of less violent offenders.
As a matter of fact, due to the independence of private prison’s operations, they can decide on the type of offenders they will accept or decline, and in all cases, private prisons opt to accept less violent prisoners or prisoners with health, mental or dietary conditions. This is in a bid to avoid incurring higher costs.
Staffing and Security
Compared to public prisons, the staff strength and security offered by most privately owned or operated prisons are below par. Generally, it has been noted that most private prison officials do not receive as much training as their counterparts. As well, the ratio of prison staff to inmates is on the lower side – they are mostly understaffed.
Additionally, private prisons only accept inmates that are considered to be less violent partly due to the unavailability of sufficient security system or guards for inmate control. The intention was to have as much security as will be enough to control the type of inmates housed. But contrary to these expectations, there tends to be a higher level of assaults (both inmate on inmate assaults, and assaults on guards) and prison riots. These prisons tend to be less safe for inmates and guards, probably because even once less violent prisoner become more violent when they realize that their prison environment is porous.
Though private prisons are bound by law to be answerable for any conditions there inmates are subjected to, they are, unlike the public prisons, not bound to provide reports on the conditions of confinement within the walls. Hence, it becomes difficult to access information or reports on the situation of things within the walls of private prisons. They adopt a close-knitted form of operation, inaccessible to the prying eyes of the public.
Finally, room was given for the establishment of private prisons and privately operated prisons due to the high expectations on the costs that will be cut. But, that didn’t exactly work out, as the cost of running a private prison is just about %10 less than that used in running a public prison. Looking at the fact that they offer lesser security, lesser health care, and lesser pay to the staff, the 10% saved costs doesn’t look so good after all.