Private prisons are a terrible idea. But they didn’t cause mass incarceration.



Whenever I write about the causes of mass incarceration in America, I can always expect one response from some readers: Aren’t private prisons to blame, since they’ve created a for-profit incentive to lock up as many people as possible?

I understand where the perspective comes from. Many prison companies are paid for each inmate they house, so there’s a financial incentive for the company to try to incarcerate as many people as possible. This means it’s in the company’s financial interest to get a steady flow of prisoners, which in turn gives private prison companies an incentive to lobby for policies that continue mass incarceration.

But this overestimates the effect of private prison companies, which make up a tiny portion of America’s vast prison system. There’s also a much simpler explanation for why mass incarceration began: It was a response to real crises in America back in the 1970s and ’80s. And the end of these crises is why advocates say now is the time to end mass incarceration.

Private prisons are a small portion of the prison system

 Prison Policy Initiative

For-profit companies are responsible for confining about 6 percent of state prisoners — which make up over 86 percent of the prison system — and 16 percent of federal prisoners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. So private companies really hold very small sway in America’s enormous prison system.

Private prisons are also a response to mass incarceration, not a cause of it. In 2011, for example, Ohio became the first state to sell a state prison to a private company. The state pursued this as a cost-cutting measure — it figured that the expense of running the Lake Erie Correctional Institution was so high that it would be better if a private company bore the costs. But this cost-cutting measure only became necessary for Ohio as mass incarceration consumed a big portion of its budget, forcing the state to look for new ways to save money.

A similar story has played out in other states, from California to Virginia, as private prisons have been touted as a way to reduce spending as incarceration continued to grow. TheSentencing Project, which advocates for reduced incarceration, explained this in 2004, noting that a new era of privatization came after mass incarceration began:

The 1980s, though, ushered in a new era of prison privatization. With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the “war on drugs” and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons.

None of this is to say private prisons aren’t fraught with problems — they do create several perverse incentives. States are typically required to pay for a minimum number of inmates even if they can’t fill a prison, so they have an incentive to fill up private prisons to an extent to get bang for their buck. And more inmates mean more money for prison companies, while stronger rehabilitation programs and security are seen as costly and biting into profit.

In investigating Ohio’s privately owned Lake Erie facility for my previous job, I heard of many of these problems firsthand. I talked to inmates who reported regular fights, and exposed state audits that found the prison was falling far short of Ohio’s correctional standards. Critics of private prisons, like the ACLU, told me this was expected: Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the prison, has a financial incentive to spend as little as possible, so it was likely spending the least amount it could on rehab programs and security.

All of this would be a bigger problem if private companies operated most of America’s prisons and perpetuated mass incarceration, but the reality, as noted above, is they only make up a small sliver of the prison system. Instead, there’s a much simpler explanation for why mass incarceration happened: to combat high crime and drug use in the 1970s and ’80s.

Crime and drug use drove mass incarceration

In the ’70s and ’80s, crime rates and illicit drug use were historically high. This created a political crisis in America, as the public, media, and politicians bought into the idea that punitive measures were necessary to combat the breakdown of society’s moral fabric.

Take, for instance, the murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate throughout the past six decades, which was very high from the 1970s through the early 1990s:

US murder rate

And here is the level of illicit drug use among high school seniors, who were reportedly using far more illegal substances in the 1970s and early 1980s than today:

drug use high school seniors

The media went into a frenzy over these types of numbers, widely covering gang and gun violence, drug use among children, and the crack cocaine epidemic. This drove the public to demand that lawmakers do something about these problems. And policymakers responded with mass incarceration.

The idea was that more arrests, more prosecutions, and longer prison sentences would deter crime and drug use. Facing a crisis, US lawmakers pursued these policies with little concern for the costs — not just the financial burden, but the racial disparities and erosion of civil liberties they produced as well.

It’s now easy to look back at these ideas with scorn. Criminal justice experts point out, for example, that incarceration reached the point of diminishing returns by the 1990s — there are only so many serious criminals out there, and by then the people getting put in prison weren’t people who’d be committing crime after crime on the street. And Americans are regularly shocked by statistics like the fact the US makes up about 4 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 22 percent of the world’s prison population.

So these policies were desperate responses to real crises at the time. Policymakers didn’t need private prison companies lobbying them to pursue mass incarceration. They just had to look at the country’s problems with crime and drugs — and the media and public’s demands that something be done — to realize they had to act.

All of this is crucial to understanding why mass incarceration is now widely regarded by people of both political parties as unnecessary: Just as historically high crime rates and drug use encouraged America to increase its prison population, plummeting crime rates and reduced drug use suggest punitive measures are no longer needed.


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