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Abolishing Private Detention Facilities Does Not Fix The Problem

By: Jayden Bolden


On January 26, 2021 Joe Biden signed an executive order which stated that the U.S. Attorney General “shall not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, as consistent with applicable law.” While this may seem like a monumental gain amidst national calls for defunding the police and abolishing the prison industrial complex completely, a brief look into the business model and statistics of these entities exposes telling narratives. 


What Are ‘Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities’, and How Do They Work?


A private detention facility is a jail, state prison, federal prison, youth or immigrant detention facility in which the government has contracted to a third party entity, placing the responsibility of employing staff and administration, upkeep of the detention facility and overseeing prisoners on the private company. Government owned prisons typically outsource certain amenities, such as food, clothes and right now, PPE (so much so, that there is an ‘American Jail Association Conference & Jail Expo’ held annually in Columbus, Ohio for vendors to show off their products to criminal facilities), but a private prison is the government outsourcing the whole affair to a third party business through contractual agreement. Since prisons are typically non-profit, some view private prisons as ‘doing the government, and the people, a favor’ in giving them a cheaper method to run these facilities. 


But the numbers just do not add up. Investopedia.com gives an explanation on how private prisons make money. While this article is not wrong, it can be slightly misleading. They say,

“Let’s suppose that it costs $100 per day to house a prisoner (assuming full capacity, including all administration costs), and the prison building can hold 1,000 inmates. A private prison can offer their services to the government and charge $150 per day per prisoner. Generally speaking, the government will agree to these terms if the $150 is less than if the prison was publicly run. That spread is where the private prison makes its money.”


They are correct in that the spread between what they make and what they charge, as that is standard business procedure. But what they do not mention is the research that shows the spread is never that large, nor does it have to be, per the rules. Numerous studies since 1996 have shown no absolute trend of savings due to the privatization of prisons: United States General Accounting Office came to this conclusion in 1996, The University of Utah found the similar results in 2009, the Arizona’s Office of the Auditor General concluded that privatization was actually more expensive than state run prisons, and most recently, a 2019 Georgia audit reported that they spent a higher rate on their inmates in private prisons than those in state run facilities, with an almost $5 per day difference ($1,825 a year, per prisoner. If there were a thousand prisoners in this specific Georgian facility, that’s $1,825,000 Georgia lost for one location.) Here are also some facts from a case study of the Private Prisons Industry (60 prisons in total) by Good Jobs First in 2001:


  • At least 44, or 73 percent, of the 60 facilities had received a development subsidy from local, state and/or federal government sources.

  • A total of $628 million in tax-free bonds and other government-issued securities had been issued to finance the private prisons we studied.

  • 37 percent of the facilities had received low-cost construction financing through tax-free bonds or other government-issued debt securities.

  • 38 percent had received property tax abatements or other tax reductions.

  • 23 percent had received infrastructure subsidies, such as water, sewer or utility hook-ups, access roads, and/or other publicly financed improvements.

  • Subsidies were found in 17 of the 19 states in which the 60 facilities are located.

  • Facilities operated by the two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now known as The GEO Group), were frequently subsidized. Among the facilities we studied, 78 percent of CCA's and 69 percent of Wackenhut's prisons were subsidized, suggesting that these companies had been aggressive in seeking development subsidies.

There are more, but I’m sure you get the point: economically, private correctional facilities are neutral at best, and much more costly at their worst (not to mention three of the largest studies in favor of privatization were directly funded by organizations with financial interest in privatization, immediately corrupting the studies’ integrity.) There have been numerous investigations for misconduct & failed supervision within these facilities as well. With this data available to the public for years, why has our country clung to them for so long?


How’d We Get Here?

The first privately run prison was formed in San Quentin, California in 1852, and had a pretty history of brutality & torture for its first 100 or so years. But, San Quentin was not a landmark like other articles may suggest, because the trend towards privatization did not really begin until the War on Drugs, but has boomed ever since. 


Richard Nixon first coined the term “War on Drugs'' in 1971, backing the rhetoric with major policy reconstruction, such as passing no-knock warrants and minimum mandatory sentences. To summarize Nixon’s legacy on incarceration, here was his domestic policy chief (!), John Ehrlichman, admitting to using racist, derogatory tropes to push this type of legislation: “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Yes, he literally said that.


With sentiment like that living in the heads of top White House officials, it should literally be zero surprise that America’s incarceration rate skyrocketed during the next few decades, carried on with the help of the Reagan Administration (see CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy) and every administration to come. When the prison population began to rise, state facilities began to overflow with inmates. After renovating a motel to create their first privately owned detention facility, the three men who started Corrections Corporations of America offered to take over a Tennessee facility after it began to overcrowd. Although unsuccessful in their first attempt, CCA and Wackenhut Corrections Corporations would have numerous prison contracts by the beginning of the 90s. They would both become powerhouses in the public sector, now competing in a multi-billion dollar industry and garnering developmental subsidies (taxpayer money) left and right. 


How Does Getting Rid of Them Affect The Prison Industrial Complex?


It should first be asserted that Joe Biden is not the first to propose this idea. Bernie Sanders, alongside Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, proposed the ‘Justice is Not For Sale Act’ in 2015, in which the abolition of all for-profit detention facilities was foremost presented. Out of learning this comes fact the necessity to acknowledge the moral conflict, and conflict of interest, in profiting from incarceration. Upon launching, one founder of CCA told the press, “You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.” These people don’t care about providing proper rehabilitation for inmates, they care about their bottom line. Once crime goes down, so does their profit, which is the end all, be all in this game. What CCA is meant to do goes against what these facilities are meant to do, therefore they should not be involved in such a system. These indefensible conflicts, accompanied by the multiple cases of overcrowding, mistreatment, sexual assault, unsanitary conditions and botched security, prove there is a clear need for abolition of these useless entities. In that case, Joe Biden did what should have been done. But, this executive order comes nowhere near an equitable solution for the damage done by the other ongoing policies and structures that form the prison industrial complex. 


Privately held correctional facilities account for less than 9% of all cells being used across the country; this includes local, state, federal, immigrant and youth systems. This doesn’t mean that this practice should not warrant attention, because it very much should -- 9% of 2.3 million individuals is still 207,000 people whose lives have been affected. But, they are not getting released from prison. Biden specifically says, “To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the Federal Government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities.” He is assuming a cause-effect relationship between mass incarceration and the monetization of these facilities, and by “phasing out” these facilities (AKA it’s gonna take a while for the government to regain proper control of this multi-billion dollar industry), our problem will be solved. With this approach, the injustices that form the core of the prison industrial complex remain solid, and will continue to wreak havoc on our country. 


One in every five incarcerated people in the world lives in the U.S. This country has 2.3 million people in jail or prison, 840 thousand on parole, and another 3.6 million on probation. 10.6 million people go to jail every year, and 600 thousand go to prison within the same time frame (jail rates are much higher because most people have not yet been convicted, and will be released fairly soon.) People convicted of a felony lose voting rights while incarcerated in all but three states, including Washington D.C., and some states don’t let felons gain their voting rights back without a governor’s pardon upon release. Ex-inmates often face further damage upon release from facilities, such as poverty, depleted mental health, housing discrimination, scare employment opportunities, and much more. Stats from prisonpolicy.org show that 1 in 4 people released from jail will be arrested again within the same year. Now, take into consideration that Black people make up only 13% of the population but represent 40% of the United States correctional facility population; the result of heavier patrolling in Black neighborhoods & racist tactics like the War on Drugs, which now claims 1/5th of the nation’s incarcerated population, and sheer lack of resources within these heavily patrolled communities.


Multiple studies have shown that Black and White officers alike are quicker to draw their weapons when the suspect’s race is Black. One specific study I can remember created an algorithm to test for respect, amongst other conversational attributes, from a month’s or so worth of body cam footage from a certain police station. The study found that on average, officers treated Black citizens with less respect during their interactions, regardless of what the offense was for. Police are quite literally one of the most anti-black organizations on this Earth, and that is an objective statement. A case in which one agrees or disagrees relies on whether or not they want to confront and digest what’s been put in front of them.



At the end of the day, the question should not be which is better, because both government run and privately run detention facilities fundamentally fail. The question should be whether prison is a viable response to the various forms of crime we see in our communities throughout the country. After seeing how correctional facilities not only fail to provide meaningful rehabilitation to individuals they house, but place an even greater burden on those same individuals after they are released from their cages -- most of which end up being impoverished individuals of color, by the way -- I hope you are at least disturbed, but perhaps enraged by the current state of our incarceration crisis. Enraged at the fact that if you even mention the idea of abolition you are deemed illogical, or insane, even. How illogical is it to assume that throwing people in cages may not be the best way to help them grow? How insane is it to give a **bleep** about fellow human beings? 

Supporting abolition does not mean you have all the answers. It means you have acknowledged that the current system is broken, damaging in numerous aspects, so much warranting creative, science & data based solutions. It means you are aware that our current system is not a legitimate answer to our problems. Do not let any close minded individuals stop you from imagining and fighting for an equitable solution to one of the world’s most dastardly issues.