The intense media coverage and equally intense political debate and influence peddling that accompany prison privatization generally ignore one group with a vested interest: the inmates who are housed in for-profit facilities. I have an insider's view of what it's like to do time at a for-profit prison, having been incarcerated at the Corrections Corporation of America-operated South Central Correctional Center in Clifton, Tennessee from 1992 until February 1998, when I was transferred to another facility after I openly criticized CCA. First and foremost, when it comes to private prisons the bottom line is financial. CCA facilities have signs prominently posted in the administration buildings that proclaim "Yesterday's Stock Closing," followed by a dollar amount. Some people say that crime doesn't pay, but CCA stock is presently trading at about $12 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.
CCA and other private prison operators say they can do the job cheaper. However, what private jailers call "cost effectiveness" is known less euphemistically as "cutting corners." The impact of fiscal considerations at CCA/South Central was evident on a daily basis, from rationed distribution of blankets and toilet paper to the poor quality of food. But those aren't the biggest corners being cut.
Approximately 70% of all prison-related expenses come from staffing costs -- and this is where CCA really saves, beginning with sub-par starting salaries. Consequently, the employee turnover rate is unusually high, and vacant positions are left unfilled for long periods of time to save on wages and benefits. After I was transferred to a state prison I immediately noticed the increased number of guards present -- more than I'd ever seen at CCA/South Central.
In terms of day-to-day operations there's little difference between privately owned and state-run prisons; the keepers watch over the kept regardless of who signs their paycheck. "There's something meaningful lost when an inmate looks at a guard's uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads 'Federal Bureau of Prisons' or 'State Department of Corrections,' he sees one that says 'Acme Prison Corporation," noted Professor Ira Robbins speaking on behalf of the American Bar Association.
The issue isn't privatizing prisons, but rather privatizing prisoners. Inmates, traditionally the responsibility of state and federal governments, increasingly are being contracted out to the lowest bidder. Convicts have become commodities. Certainly offenders should be punished for committing crimes, but should private companies and their stockholders profit from such punishment?
Private prisons would be great if the primary purpose of the criminal justice system was to warehouse inmates without providing them with meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. Private prison companies have no incentive to invest in such opportunities, especially when they profit from more crime, more punishment and more prisons.
Cheaper isn't always better in terms of the criminal justice system. We get what we pay for. And that's the bottom line of prison privatization.
For more information on why Alex Friedmann was transferred out of a CCA prison after talking to a reporter, see Eric Bates' editorial in The Nation.
Alex Friedmann writes for Prison Legal News and produces the Private Corrections Industry News Bulletin. He will be paroled in November 1999.