Prisons for Profit

By Cavise, Leonard L. | UNESCO Courier, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Prisons for Profit


Cavise, Leonard L., UNESCO Courier


In the modern era, it has only been since the 1980s that private, for-profit corporations have sought to operate entire prison systems(1). The private sector has long been involved in running various components of prison systems such as catering, industries, juvenile offender facilities or community-based programmes. Only recently, however, have governmental entities, mostly in the United States and Europe, considered turning over the entire management and operation of a state's or locality's correctional system to private contractors.

The concept of prison privatization has given rise to wide debate. Its proponents argue that private contractors can build larger prisons faster and thus accommodate a prison population that is, generally speaking, on the increase. They also argue that the private sector is not encumbered by bureaucracy, which is usually seen as a major impediment to the efficient operation of a state system. Corporations tend to be more streamlined and more willing to be flexible to meet expanding needs.

Opponents of prison privatization argue that crime is not a private matter between the offender and his or her gaolers, but an issue that concerns society as a whole. If the interests of society and the rights of the individual are to be safeguarded, the "government of the people" is under an obligation to ensure that the goals of incarceration are met by the constant control and monitoring exercised by a state agency that is not motivated by profit but by societal and individual concerns.

Cheap labour

The modern prison system came into being during the period of rapid industrialization in the Western world in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Prison labour was regarded by private entrepreneurs as a potentially lucrative resource. It was cheap, and the capitalist did not have overall responsibility for the welfare of the prison worker. As a result, prison workshops were equipped, and the prisoners trained, by the enterprise concerned. The entrepreneur profited from the discounted labour, while the prison itself often made a financial gain by entering into a joint arrangement with the private contractors. Abuses were, however, common. In France, inmates' living and working conditions were deplorable and were seldom monitored by state officials. In Germany, many contractors supplied only minimal quantities of the cheapest food. In the United States, corrupt prison administrators often entered into agreements whereby the prisoners would be paid nothing at all for their labour.

The state retained overall responsibility for the incarceration and rehabilitation of the prisoner, for dispensing punishment was seen as too important a government function to be ceded to private entities. As recently as 1986, the American Bar Association took a position against privatization, on the principle that incarceration is an inherent function of government. If the private sector is allowed to control the terms and, to some degree, the length of incarceration, the argument goes, the state will have abdicated one of its principal moral duties.

Privatization: for and against

Proponents of privatization counter by saying that the government should retain monitoring and supervisory authority over prisons. The courts should, for example, review all prison decisions to grant or refuse parole, grant or refuse remission for good behaviour, or restrict or grant rights which might implicate the Constitution or other legislation. The total delegation of all powers to the private sector would compromise the sovereignty of the state.

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