State officials in Idaho recently made major news when they announced that they would be taking control of a private prison which was built by the state in 1997 and run by a private corporation since that time. Under the deficient leadership of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), multiple crimes were alleged to have occurred and the quality of life for inmates was said to greatly decrease. According to the Associated Press,
"The CCA prison has been the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud by CCA. CCA acknowledged last year that falsified staffing reports were given to the state showing thousands of hours were staffed by CCA workers when the positions were actually vacant. And the Idaho state police is investigating the operation of the facility for possible criminal activity."
This isn't the first time a prison corporation has been accused of permitting or even committing crimes, as evidenced by the recent lawsuits against a Florida prison company, Youth Services International, whose staff allegedly sexually abused children held in its prisons.
There are a variety of issues that arise when the government outsources the running of prisons to private corporations, from concerns over price gouging to improper training for private prison guards, to the greater ethical concern of who should manage the people society has decided should be incarcerated. When we take away a person's freedom by putting them in jail, we are taking away one of their fundamental rights, the right to liberty. This deprivation of freedom can only by ordered by the government, so why do we think that private corporations have the right to carry out the sentence?
One of the most serious concerns regarding private prisons is the profit motives of prison corporations; essentially, if corporations get paid more money for holding more prisoners, what's to stop them and their lobbyists from supporting or even proposing government policies that result in more inmates staying in prisons longer or even bribing local judges to send more people to jail? This isn't just hyperbole as Edward Kenzakoski, a teen with no prior criminal record, killed himself after months of being unfairly jailed by a judge who received kickbacks from a prison corporation.
And why would prisons fully pursue important policies like educational programs intended to prevent recidivism? If such policies were effective and decreased the number of inmates in their prisons it would negatively impact their bottom line.
The serious philosophical shift that permits private citizens to lock people up is no small development. Until recently, prison administration was one of the services the general public felt only government should provide, similar to policing, firefighting, and other public services. While concerns over the cost of public prison administration merit attention and serious debate, the idea that the expense of maintaining prison facilities justifies private ownership is just wrong. Private corporations are a vital part of American society, but they must not be given the same rights and responsibilities as government institutions. Private corporations are only accountable to their shareholders and owners while the democratic government is accountable to everyone. This is especially true when it comes to managing people who have seen their freedoms deprived by our government.
How we act towards those we deemed a threat to society is indicative of our country's larger attitude towards civil rights and freedom in general. Are we really willing to say that once a person has committed a crime they can be milked for profit by private corporations? Or will we once again recognize that prisons need to be places solely dedicated to rehabilitating those who have committed crimes so that they won't commit them again in the future?