Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Private Prisons in Public Discourse: Measuring Moral Legitimacy

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Private Prisons in Public Discourse: Measuring Moral Legitimacy

Article excerpt

New policies require legitimacy to survive. Prison privatization represents a policy challenged by initial perceptions of illegitimacy. In the 1980s, governments began to allow private firms to run correctional facilities, shifting an inherently coercive, traditionally governmental function-incarceration-to the private sector. With data from 706 articles in four major American newspapers spanning 24 years, this research uses Freudenburg and Alario's concept of diversionary reframing to measure and track the moral legitimacy of prison privatization across time and place. Findings suggest that initially high levels of moral legitimacy facilitated some states' adoption of private prisons, while initially low levels of moral legitimacy stunted the growth of privatization in other states. This study presents a novel way of measuring moral legitimacy, demonstrates how the concept may be used to help explain controversial public policy changes, and documents the cultural content of private prison debates in the United States.

For most of the twentieth century, incarceration in the United States was the sole responsibility of government, whether at the federal, state, or local level. In the 1980s, a movement to allow private firms to imprison charged or convicted persons arrived on the corrections scene, presenting itself as an alternative or a supplement to the governmental monopoly on incarceration (Feeley 2002). Private operation of prisons (or other correctional facilities) occurs a contractual arrangement in which a private firm (either for-profit or not-for-profit) takes over full operational responsibility for a correctional facility, in exchange, is paid by the government, typically on a per-inmate per-day basis (Harding 1997; Logan 1990).

The long-term prospects for such correctional contracting were not guaranteed at the outset. Like other new and controversial practices, prison privatization depended on some degree of legitimacy (Dowling and Pfeffer 1975; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Suchman 1995). One particular type of legitimacy, moral legitimacy, refers specifically to the congruence between a practice and prevailing cultural norms of propriety (Suchman 1995). In short, a practice is morally legitimate if observers view it as "the right thing to do" (Suchman 1995:579).

Prison privatization, in which a private entity takes over the role of jailer, has faced numerous challenges to its moral legitimacy. Critics argue that incarceration is a core governmental responsibility, one that cannot be appropriately turned over to private actors (e.g., Moe 1987; Schwartz and Nurge 2004; Walt and Hughes 1996). Opponents also take issue with the symbolism involved in private actors meting out justice, suggesting that it will diminish respect for the legal system (e.g., Dilulio 1988; Kettl and Winnick 1995). Others argue that the profit motive is incompatible with justice and will introduce private incentives to increase demand for prisons (e.g., Hirsley 1985; Stinebaker 1995).

This study tracks the co-evolution of prison privatization and its moral legitimacy in the United States. The analysis is based on a novel measure of moral legitimacy, which assumes that moral legitimacy can best be seen through silence; that is, morally legitimate practices are those whose moral foundations are not questioned. By analyzing four major American newspapers' coverage of prison privatization over 24 years, the article shows that public discourse on prison privatization initially raised concerns about whether private imprisonment was "the right thing to do." However, such concerns became increasingly inconsequential as the focus of public discourse was diverted almost entirely to instrumental concerns about the performance of private prisons. This diversionary reframing (Freudenburg and Alario 2007) of the issue relegated matters of morality and ethics to the periphery of public discourse, thereby bolstering the moral legitimacy of prison privatization. …

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