Private prisons and incentives

I covered prison policy in class this week, so very timely to have this NYT article on the abominable conditions in private prisons in Mississippi:

JACKSON, Miss. — Open fires sometimes burn unheeded in the solitary-confinement units of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Meridian, 90 miles east of here.

Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells.

For years, the prison, the state’s primary facility for inmates with mental illnesses, has been plagued by problems. When a previous private operator, the GEO Group, left in 2012 after complaints to the state about squalor and lack of medical treatment, hopes rose that conditions would improve. But two years later, advocates for inmates assert that little has changed under the current operator, Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based company.

Civil rights lawyers and medical and mental health experts who toured the facility recently painted a picture of an institution where violence is frequent, medical treatment substandard or absent, and corruption common among corrections officers, who receive low wages and minimal training.

This really is not all the complicated.  First, obviously, the state social/political culture of Mississippi is such that if there’s any place that is just not going to care enough about how prisoners are treated and spending the money to treat them humanely, MS would surely be near the top of the list.  Second, the point I want to make is that you are inevitably asking for situations like this with private prisons.  There are certainly some cases where it makes sense for private corporations to run/manage things for a state (concessions at parks, janitorial services, etc., come to mind), but running a prison is clearly not one of them.

A state’s primary goals in incarceration should be to protect the public and to provide a humane, well-functioning prison for the inmates and the correctional officers.  A private company’s main goal is simply going to be to maximize profit.  Whereas consumers provide a check on the behavior of many private companies, the “consumers’ of prison services (as well as their families) don’t really get a lot of say in things.  And the people of Mississippi are the ultimate consumers and should care about having inhumane prisons, but they don’t.  Therefore, the private prison company basically has every incentive to cut costs– correctional officer salary, training, safety, etc., as well as cutting costs on the prisoners– health care, the physical plant, etc.  Not exactly a recipe for a humane, well-functioning prison.  Now, clearly, this is a bad case and not all private prisons are this bad, but regardless, you are setting up a system of incentives where the less humane the conditions the more profit for the company.  There’s just no way that’s a good thing.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Private prisons and incentives

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    I’m thinking that any state run prison is Mississippi would be run about the same way. It’s Mississippi that’s the problem.

  2. Mike from Canada says:

    I agree with everything you say on private prisons, Steve. It seems like a recipe for bad behavior, born out by the results. And now prison lobbyists are hard at work lobbying government to prevent marijuana from becoming decriminalized or legalized, or looking to toughen other laws in order to keep the prison business booming.

    All the incentives make bad situations worse.

    Harper, GW Bush of the great white north, has been trying to introduce privatized prisons for a decade now. He’s run into heavy opposition every time, but he keeps trying since I’m sure he has a lot of US lobbyists whispering in his ears. Like Wormtongue in Lord Of the Rings.

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