Prison is one of the main ways criminals are punished in the United States. Traditionally, upon being determined guilty in a court of law a criminal may be sentenced to a definite time in prison. Although there may not be agreement about the objective of prison, the use of imprisoning criminals for justice is universally agreed upon throughout the United States. Every state and the federal government imprisons criminals.
As prisons are used to carry out the public work of justice, prisons are owned by, managed by, and staffed by public employees. The provisions for the prisoners are provided by a public entity like a state. Although prisoners may be required to reimburse the government for a portion or all of their cost of imprisonment, the public entity would advance those costs to ensure a certain standard of care. After the war on drugs and the mandatory sentencing introduced in the 1980s, prison populations exploded as did financial and other pressures to create and sustain prisons.
In response to double-digit growth of prison populations, some public entities turned to for-profit prisons to room and board public prisoners. By the end of 2018, the United States had the largest for-profit prison population in the world.
The United States was founded on certain ideals. Those ideals imagined a desirable or perfect society to strive for. One of those ideals is liberty. Although public welfare may require that someone’s liberty be limited, profiting for limiting someone’s liberty against their will is evil.
Public funds deployed for this purpose manifest the evil publicly. It institutionalizes evil into the public structure itself. One of the ways that this evil is manifested is by the creation of a new role, the prison profiteer. The prison profiteer’s objective is profit which is something other than the public objective for justice. This is a conflict of interest of the highest order. Whatever the invisible hand of the prison profiteer might look like if it could be seen it would be taking whatever actions are necessary to profit. It would be near impossible to argue that the several billions of dollars received by prison profiteers annually do not, at a minimum, fight for its continued existence and increased profits.1 The prison profiteer doesn’t lobby the congressperson for justice they lobby the congressperson for more profit.
Immigrant families and children are also held, by the thousands, in private prisons. These facilities are given names other than prison, such as detention facilities, to distinguish from prisons. Prisons and places where immigrants are held are not distinguishable in this way, both deprive people of liberty and the United States has decided that the deprivation of one’s liberty is punishment for criminal conduct.
The prison profiteer might argue that the for-profit prison is more cost-effective and the savings offsets any evil or unavoidable conflict-of-interest. This argument cuts against another American ideal which is that life and liberty cannot be reduced to a calculable profit. Americans disgust at the thought of selling children or buying organs for transplant. The idea of seeking court enforcement or a damages judgment for a contract requiring a party to live in another’s basement dungeon for a year is ridiculous. Even if the cost savings could be justified, decades of research evidence that cost savings claims associated with for-profit prisons are unfounded.2
The total elimination of for-profit prisons restores the relationship between the public entity and justice and eliminates the invisible hand of the prison profiteer, the conflicts-of-interest, and this evil is de-institutionalized.
Revised July 8, 2020
- Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/capitalizing-on-mass-incarceration-u-s-growth-in-private-prisons/ ↩
- Id ↩