The Death of Private Prisons in America

American divestment in the facilities arrives after scathing investigative piece

(Dave Nakayama,Flickr Creative Commons)

This month, media outlet Mother Jones released a harrowing and gritty account of four months spent inside one of America’s private prisons. That specific prison happened to be so private, in fact, that the article rattled bones across the entire continent, including the President of the United States’.

Investigative journalist Shane Bauer put his life on the line for the 36,000-word read, going undercover as a prison guard and subjecting himself to violence, fear, and corruption in the process. Mother Jones calls it “the biggest investigation [they’ve] ever published,” and that title is well-earned. It seems that the article may have been enough to push the US government to action within a month of its publication.

Aug. 18 marked the day that the Obama administration announced its divestment and detachment from private prisons. With that decision came a plummet in stocks for the three companies that run them nation-wide: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group Inc., and Management and Training Corp. Otherwise, it seems to be a massively beneficial, conveniently timed, and long overdue choice on their behalf.

Because private prisons are operated by companies contracted by government agencies rather than the government itself, what they do there can easily go unseen to scrutinizing eyes. Regulations are often ignored and made up without anyone to weigh in on their fairness or morality. One of the most publicized faults of private prisons is the suspicious amount of profit they rake in, how little of that goes to their staff, where exactly it comes from, and why.

There is also a disturbingly high amount of stabbings, fights, and other violent incidents between inmates, between guards and inmates, or even between guards and other guards.

While the US is no stranger to acting shifty behind closed doors or punishing convicts questionably, the end of their involvement with private prisons is pleasant, but not a surprise. The number of inmates in the States has declined so significantly over the years that they don’t really need them anymore.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said in an interview with CBC News that the “important, groundbreaking and historic step” is “what’s best for taxpayers and what’s best for public safety.” He is very likely right.

Although this is the most significant American divestment in private prisons so far, the administration isn’t the first to do it. In 2013, three heavy-hitting investors backed out on a collective $60-million given to the CCA and GEO Group. GEO Group themselves were pressured by lobbyists into rejecting a $6-million offer for naming rights of FAU Stadium the same year. Those are only two occurrences of a great, great many that have been steadily piling up over the years. The government was just last to the party.

All in all, public prisons are found to be safer, more affordable, and altogether more effective than private ones. Where there’s less room for corruption, there’s more room for efficiency and reform.

Logically, if there’s anywhere in the world that should be free of crime and violence, it ought to be a jail. Merely containing and encouraging the violent behaviour that got convicts behind bars in the first place—while optimistically hoping they will be released changed and productive members of society—seems a little paradoxical, does it not?

Luckily, here in Canada, all of our prisons are government-controlled.