he United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, but it is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population.
Over the past 30 years, the response to prison overcrowding due to harsher laws and longer sentences has been a growing number of government-contracted for-profit prisons companies.
On April 23, a panel at Fordham said these privately owned and operated prisons raise urgent moral concerns about how justice is carried out in the United States.
Sponsored by Fordham’s Center for Ethics Education, “Jailing for Dollars: The Moral Costs of Privatizing Justice,” held at Fordham School of Law, featured a panel of experts that included Cindy Chang, staff writer for Los Angeles Times, Thomas Giovanni, counsel to the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Judith Greene, criminal justice policy expert at Justice Strategies, Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, and John Pfaff, associate professor of law.
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Panelists discussed portions of the film Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry, which documents the rising danger of prison overcrowding. As states have begun to outsource prisoners—California sends inmates as far as Mississippi, while Hawaii has 1,700 male inmates housed in a prison in Arizona—private prisons have taken up the excess.
Pfaff questioned, however, whether private facilities are in fact driving prison growth, or whether they are merely part of a complex problem fueled by politics. Although the number of private prisons has surged over the last three decades, only about 8 percent of state prisoners are housed in these facilities.
These politics, Jacobson said, are characterized less by Republican versus Democrat and more by “upstate versus downstate.” That is, private prisons are largely concentrated in rural areas, creating jobs as a byproduct.
“Prisons have been used as a form of economic development in communities across the country—that’s a bad thing,” Jacobson said. “That’s not a private versus public thing—that’s a prison-as-jobs dynamic, and it’s a very difficult dynamic to break. It’s one of the many reasons that closing prisons is so difficult. These communities fight to have them and keep them.”
Even if private prisons have not caused the prison crisis, Jacobson said they represent an obstacle to future reform.
Chang, who spent a year researching the correctional system in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, found that private prisons also bring resources and jobs to law enforcement officials who run the prisons.
“One sheriff said that he hates to make money off of the back of some unfortunate person, but he also remembers when the police force had nothing—they had to share shotguns on patrol,” she said. “It’s a Faustian bargain. You get jobs, but in return, you’re part of this troublesome system.”
Even worse, maintaining these prisons triggers a vicious cycle. “If you’re putting all this money into locking people up, then you have less money for schools, or for making neighborhoods better, which is why some people end up in prison in the first place,” she said.
Giovanni said the nation must begin by addressing soaring incarceration rates, which have been spurred by harsher laws and sentencing.
“Too many things are crimes that should not be crimes,” Giovanni said, citing stringent trespassing and loitering laws, as well as policies related to the so-called war on drugs.
“When we think about prison policy legislation—we wrote it, we can erase it… That’s going to take a lot of fuel out of the fire.”
Pfaff added that in order to help curb incarcerations for low-level offenses, prosecutors who hand out prison sentences liberally, especially for non-violent, non-sexual, non-recidivist offenders, should be held financially accountable.
“Never doubt the incentives of cash,” Pfaff said. “If we make you pay for your actions, then your actions might change.”
Overall, Giovanni noted, the focus on whether prisons should be private or public obscures more important issues related to human rights, such as the abysmal conditions that prisoners suffer in public as well as private facilities.
“The debate over private versus public [has]a complete lack of focus on the human beings in the cells that we’re talking about,” Giovanni said. “The beginning and end of all policy is a human being whose life can either improve or be made worse by the policy. If we start there, then we’ll have a different discussion.”