Just a few months ago, things were looking very bleak for the private prison industry. In mid-August, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report finding that privately operated federal prisons are more dangerous than those managed by the federal Bureau of Prisons and need more oversight.
Within a week, the Justice Department announced it would phase out private prisons to house federal inmates. Later that month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would evaluate whether detention operations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement should move in the same direction. Not surprisingly, shares of the nation’s private prison companies tanked.
But Trump’s win has turned the prospects for private prisons around almost immediately. Trump’s racially charged law-and-order rhetoric, and his promise to deport or incarcerate millions of immigrants – with the help of a like-minded attorney general, Jeff Sessions – have breathed new life into the industry.
Whether or not the Obama administration was right to phase out its reliance on private contracts, the likelihood is that the Trump administration will increase the private prison industry’s share of the corrections business.
That means we should think hard about ways that private prison firms might innovate – including how they might devise new strategies to reduce recidivism. By improving the contracts with private prisons and changing the incentives, we can make private prisons more accountable and hopefully more effective in curbing the endless cycle of arrests and incarceration.
The overcrowding of state prison systems in the early 1980s provided an opening for incarceration entrepreneurs. At that time, lawmakers were faced with reducing the number of people behind bars or building additional, expensive facilities. But taxpayers were unwilling to foot the bill, and legislators believed they would be voted out of office if they appeared soft on crime.
Some argue private prisons are so driven by their bottom line that they cut costs in areas like staffing and healthcare, which decreases the quality of life for inmates.
Others take moral issue with the idea that a corporation is profiting off of the nation’s predilection for incarceration as a one-size-fits-all answer to crime, and rewarded for the sheer number of inmates they can warehouse, rather than for developing successful rehabilitation programs and producing positive reentry outcomes.
But others support the industry, arguing that it can circumvent government procurement laws and step in when government-run corrections agencies find themselves with too many inmates for their own jails and prisons.
Restructuring contracts around the nation’s public policy goals would ensure that private operators provide more educational programming and job training – and that they prepare their inmates for successful reentry to the community.
Like it or not, all signs indicate the private prison industry is here to stay under Trump. Asked about his views on prison reform by Chris Matthews on the campaign trail, Trump replied, “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations, and private prisons it seems do work a lot better.”
His administration would do well to adopt some of the innovative ways state officials have reined in the worst excesses of privatization.
Building the proper incentives into contracts has the power to move the for-profit prison industry away from focusing on cost-cutting and filling beds toward a world where public and private incentives align.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Private Prisons Are Poised for a Comeback Under Trump. Here’s How to Reform Them.’
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