Imprisoning people is one of the weightiest things that government does, yet outsourcing imprisonment means that treatment of inmates is shaped by bottom-line considerations. This has led to under-staffing, inadequate mental-health care, and, in some cases, inadequate meals. Worse, private prisons have an obvious incentive to keep people inside as long as possible. Last year, Anita Mukherjee, an assistant professor of actuarial science at the University of Wisconsin, studied Mississippi’s prison system, and found that people in private prisons received many more “prison conduct violations” than those in government-run ones. This made it harder for them to get parole, and, on average, they served two to three more months of prison time.
The perversities of profit-driven prison policy don’t end there. The need for inmates leads companies, in effect, to lobby state and federal governments to maintain the current system of mass incarceration. Government-run prisons aren’t blameless here—prison-guard unions lobby for longer sentences and tougher laws—but the private companies know how to throw their weight around, and they benefit from strong local support, as they are often in rural towns without many other sources of jobs or tax revenue. Since the mid-aughts, the industry has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying on the state and federal levels. Its successes include an Arizona law that required cops to stop suspected undocumented immigrants, major increases in spending on immigration enforcement, and the blocking of congressional efforts to ban private prisons.
It’s become common to speak of “the prison-industrial complex,” and the analogy to the military-industrial complex is a good one: in both cases, government spending helps fund very profitable businesses, which, in turn, lobby legislators and regulators to keep the funds flowing. Just as we spend billions on weapons systems that we may not need, so, too, we jail more people than we need for longer than necessary, because it keeps someone’s balance sheet healthy.
James Surowiecki, “Trump Sets Private Prisons Free”, The New Yorker (5 December 2016), 26.