Private Prisons and Prison Growth

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.