This election season, Democratic candidates are leaping over each other to appear most informed on criminal justice reform. Although President Donald Trump strongly supports private prisons, 12 of the initial candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination opposed Trump and endorsed the total elimination of private prisons.
Harsher sentencing policies for nonviolent offenders during and after the war on drugs increased the number of inmates and put pressure on the public prison system. Private prisons scrambled to help accommodate the shortage of holding cells in public prisons. While private prisons originally fulfilled this need, they have spiraled out of control in ways that are undeniably harmful to the American people — feeding into a system that begs for comprehensive review and reform, such as revising pretrial laws, reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses and improving recidivism rates.
Private prisons held 8.2% of the total state and federal prison population at the end of 2017, and they can choose their inmates. The government compensates these prisons based on their number of housed inmates and the average length of time each inmate serves. This system creates a dangerous moral hazard by incentivizing higher recidivism rates to maintain high criminal count and increased sentences for profit maximization. Inmates in private prisons serve sentences 4% to 7% longer than inmates with similar infractions in public prisons because they are 15% more likely to receive conduct infractions for violence, resulting in longer sentences and higher profit for the company running the prison.
Furthermore, these prisons engage in discriminatory policies to expand profit margins, such as choosing low-rung criminals over violent offenders to cut security costs. They reject inmates with costly health conditions and have slashed reentry programs that focus on reducing recidivism when convicts reenter society. The government pays these prisons about $150 per day per prisoner to cover the daily costs of inmates, and the private companies shamelessly cut back on maintenance, food and medical insurance to widen the margin between the government stipend and their actual per-person cost.
Making everyday life safer for citizens depends on convicts understanding their error and successfully reintegrating into society. Cutting costs by reducing education and awareness programs in private prisons is immensely dangerous because it ensures a constant cash flow to these prisons and pushes recidivism rates higher. The industry comprises a few players (three companies form 96% of the market) that rake in billions of dollars each year. Each player is bankrolled by Wall Street firms — lobbying hard to escape legislative reform.
There are many ways to make private prisons more ethical. We could reform pretrial laws to address public prison overcrowding due to low-income people awaiting trial. Another measure could be to simply push legislators to pass laws supporting the creation of transitional housing and interagency systems to reduce those who voluntarily stay in jail past release to avoid homelessness. Nonviolent offenders should not face such harsh sentences, especially since these offenders predominantly belong to marginalized groups and are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. Lastly, the private prison moral hazard must be eliminated — we need to focus on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates and tying private prisons’ pay to those rates. It is time to stop putting a price tag on freedom.
Rhea Gupta (23C) is from Mumbai, India.