Private Prisons and Prison Growth

by on June 14, 2005 at 7:10 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

The fireworks were flying at the conference on prisons.  The audience, not to mention the opposing panel, were vehemently opposed to all prisons.  I’m in favor of ending the war on drugs and emptying the prisons of non-violent offenders but one speaker argued that 80 percent of the people in prison ought to be released – sure, if we bring back the penal colony.

Later I was chastised for referring to inmates – don’t you understand, I was told, they are people.

All very fine and well but I’d had enough when one speaker blamed the massive increase in prisons over the past twenty five years on private prisons.  This is a hard square to circle because private prisons today house less than 7 percent of the prison population.  Obviously, the increase in prisons has been almost entirely in the public sector and has been driven primarily not by nefarious profiteers or even by prison bureaucracies but by crime and the public’s demand for crime control.

A more sophisticated version of the argument can be found in the comments section of my last post.  It is true that a private prison could lobby for tougher sentences in order to boost demand for its product.  It’s hard to take this too seriously, however.  Do we think that contracting out garbage pickup is a bad idea because the garbage men will lobby for wasteful packaging?  Moreover, the problem becomes less serious the more private prison firms there are because with more companies each will gain less from lobbying for say tougher sentences in general

Finally, we have to compare with the current situation.  The prison guard unions typically have monopolies and do lobby for tougher sentences.  The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for example, has spent millions shamelessly creating a front of victim’s rights groups who campaign against drug rehabilitation programs instead of jail, revising the three strikes law, and reducing sentences.   

Despite the fireworks, or maybe because I woke a few people up, I am invited back today to speak on three strikes.

Tom Grey - Liberty Dad June 14, 2005 at 8:20 am

Inmates are people, people who have been convicted of a crime and are being punished. Is there no difference between victim and criminal and “innocent” bystander?

Or is this another version of “we have higher standards” (then the unspoken inferior them), and therefore we should use their methods? (Physical force – to confine them.)

Hurting others should be different than hurting yourself; and peaceful drug use criminals should be segregated.

When police force is used against peaceful, honest drug users — we can’t have a peaceful society. By society’s choice.

(Thanks for comments on!)

Mr. Econotarian June 14, 2005 at 9:50 am

I have always wondered why prisoners should be allowed to communicate with one another. Prisoners should only be allowed to talk with non-criminals. Each cell should be personal, with a television screen (behind tempered glass) to allow video communication only with psychologists and educators. Visits with family should also only be allowed through video to reduce contraband. They should also be allowed to read this blog ;)

Mark Draughn June 14, 2005 at 1:04 pm

7 percent, huh? There goes my prison-industrial complex theory.

Chris Stiles June 14, 2005 at 2:13 pm

Given that rape is endemic in the US prison system – and more or less sanctioned at the warden level as a means of keeping order, a little more stress on the fact that ‘inmates are also people’ is worth having.

It is hard to take seriously the argument that the more private prison firms would equate with less lobbying – the presence of industry wide lobbying groups in other sectors is evidence to the contrary. Lobbying itself can also take the form of supporting the opponents of prison reform – do private prison firms overwhelmingly support socially conservative organisations and candidates ? It should be fairly easy to see.

Randall Parker June 14, 2005 at 8:08 pm

Alex,

I think penal colonies could be less inhumane and more cost effective than prisons. Consider what could be done with remote islands:

1) A penal colony for child molesters. We wouldn’t have to worry about them molesting children because we would simply allow no children on the island. The opposite sexes would be allowed to share an island only if the women submitted to norplant or were post-menopausal.

2) A penal colony for drunken drivers. Of course such a colony would have no cars. They might produce liquor with illicit stills. But they couldn’t drive a car while drunk. Though they might hurt themselves on bicycles.

3) A penal colony for obsessive compulsive thieves. There’d be a few extremely well defended stores and all sales would be registered and recorded. Then surprise inspections of residences could turn up stolen items and nanotech encoding could identify who to return each item to.

4) A penal colony for drug addicts. The trick here is to discover whether we could manage to keep recreational drugs entirely off an isolated island (say in the Aleutian chain).

5) A penal colony for celebrity stalkers.

All penal colonies would have functioning economies and trade. All trade would be closely supervised. I argue that the trade supervision and other monitoring mentioned above would be a lot cheaper than staffing and operating a prison.

This idea doesn’t work for all forms of crime. But it seems viable for some.

Take people who have specific criminal proclivities and put them in open communities with functioning economies isolated from civilization and isolated from the objects of their obsession. Why wouldn’t this work?

Matt June 15, 2005 at 3:21 am

Deal with the drug laws (aka, REPEAL THEM!) and the prison crowding problem will solve itself. 2/3 of the beds will be immediately emptied. It’s hard to estimate how many property crimes (motivated by the need to pay prohibition-induced prices for a drug to which the criminal is addicted) will be prevented, but I suspect the number is substantial.

In general I’m inclined to favor privatization whenever and wherever it’s practical (IOW, generally everything but roads, courts, and defense), and I suspect that private prisons could offer substantial cost and performance improvements on government prisons…but frankly, cost and performance are nowhere near the top of the list of problems with America’s correctional system.

I suspect the rent-seeking problem would be a wash either way.

Terry Keith June 24, 2005 at 4:41 pm

Let’s start treating the people instead of the symptoms. http://blog.usdrugrehabcenters.com/

Jeffrey Henderson July 4, 2006 at 7:59 pm

Prohibition DOES NOT work. I’m 25. I remember when I was still not old enough to buy alcohol that it was much easier to get drugs then alcohol. Why? Because the people supplying the drugs make so much money that even though our country spends $70 billion dollars ($70,000,000,000) fighting a “war on drugs” they persevere, making sure I can get high.

Legalize drugs, and regulate drugs like acohol. The price of drugs will plummet. Now we have a product that has a much lower profit margin, that we can regulate, because it will no longer be a multi-trillion dollar a year business.

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Mike June 25, 2007 at 12:09 am

I think before anything else, we focus on stopping crimes. We can do that if we learn how infrared cameras are used.

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