Privatization of the American penal system


The privatization of the penal system in the United State of America is understood as the transfer of the control of prison and prison-related services from the public sector to the private sector. It is the contracting of the private sector by the federal, state or local government to design, to build and to operate prison services and to run jail services. Consequently, private companies may be contracted to provide services like counseling, medical care, food and the maintenance of public prisons and jails. The privatization of the prison system can be traced back to the days of convict lease system, which was practiced by the southern states during the period of reconstruction. This system of convict lease involved the leasing out of prisoners to serve as laborers under the supervision of private companies, which could take care of the housing, care and the security of the prisoners.

The modern model of prison privatization is different from the ancient model. This is because federal, local, and state governments only contract private companies that are strictly regulated, and only those that are in the position to provide effective care and humane conditions for the prisoners (Joel, 1988). Among the companies that are major players in prison privatization are: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA): this is the oldest, and it operates over sixty private prisons and jails. The GEO group: this is the second largest after CCA, and it operates approximately 47 prison and jail facilities. Cornell Companies: This is also one of the major providers of penal privatization services.

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It provides such services as drug and substance abuse training, group and individual counseling, life support skills, and educational and vocational training. It places a lot of emphasis on rehabilitation. The USA largely relies on imprisonment as the best alternative to reducing prevalence of crimes. This over reliance on imprisonment is due to the high rates of crimes, public perception, and imprisonment as a political instrument, and miscalculated policies and laws. The rate of imprisonment in the USA is the highest in the world. This is primarily the reason for the demand for privatization of the penal system to relieve the government of the task to handle a large number of prisoners (Hartney, 2006).

Debate on Privatization of American Penal System

The USA has been acting tough on law breakers and criminal offenders. This has created a lot of problems necessitated by the shortage of prisons’ capacities to handle the pressure of numerous convicted offenders hence resulting in overcrowding, which demands operational outlays and public resistance on the costs incurred in managing prisons.

This has prompted the privatization of the penal system to minimize these costs, and it has been actualized in almost half of the American states while others are considering passing legislations to make it operational. Privatization of the penal system is a subject of public debate and there are both opponents and proponents to the debate. In USA, it is the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of prisons to provide prison care and services to inmates. It is also charged with the responsibility of professionalizing prison services to ensure that there is a better administration of all prison operations. The Bureau is responsible for the custody, rehabilitation and care of all inmates in USA.

The activities and responsibilities of the Bureau of prisons have in the recent times been usurped by private companies which have been co-opted in the bid to privatize the America penal system (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2011).

My Stand on the Debate: Opposing Privatization of Penal System

I totally disagree with the privatization of the penal system in the United States of America. Though the traditional form of the privatization of the penal system relieves the states of the burden of taking care of the inmates, the financial benefits that are obtained from each convict as a payment for the labor services they provide can form part of state total revenue. First, there are several unanswered questions that have raised legal concerns regarding prison privatization. These have been particularly voiced in the state of New York where a lot of reservations regarding privatization of the penal system have been raised due to the fact that in the event that a private company is contracted to guard prisons or the jails, they may be out of context in the exercise of the state’s Taylors law that prohibits public employees from striking. Consequently, a private firm contracted to offer private prison and jail services in Virginia referred as the Keefe Supply Company was sued for using prison labor when the law only permits prison labor to be used for government or civic duties; no court in the country has upheld that privatization of correctional services as unconstitutional. Further more there is an increased fear that the privatization of the penal system will be a perfect opportunity for unscrupulous companies to cut their costs by understaffing the prisons.

This is due to the profit motive in their services. This has, however, been taken care of by the contracts which stipulate the particular targets for staffing whereby any private company that does not conform to the terms of the contract risk strong financial penalties (Zito, 2003). There is also concern about recidivism. It has been verified, through several researches, that prisoners in public prisons are less likely to repeat crimes as opposed to the prisoners who are in private prisons. Several jurisdictions consider the privatization of the penal system as an uncertain venture.

Privatization of the penal system is a bad phenomenon due to the fact that private prisons will tend to exploit prison labor for their own profit. There was a case, for example, where the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) provided several work programs linked to local and national ventures in its state prisons. The prisoners were hired out to perform such tasks as bookbinding, manufacturing, packaging and repackaging, and furniture assembly.

This happened in an arrangement between CCA and a third party company which was permitted to operate its activities inside the prison walls. This was against the principle that only permits prison labor to be used by government and Non-Governmental organization and not by any other entity. Such activities by private companies can amount to the misuse of prison labor.

There is also skepticism regarding whether or not privatization of the penal system will reduce state, federal, or local government spending. There are also reservations as to whether the prison officers in private prisons have adequate training and whether they can effectively manage the institutions. According to the opponents of privatization, other than opting for privatization of the penal system to avoid overcrowding, overcrowding can be avoided by reducing the penal population. There are also concerns about ethical implications of allowing private companies or organizations that are profit oriented to administer punishment to criminals.

Based on the argument by criminologists Michael Reisig and Travis Pratt that central to the debate on the private prison management is the relationship between the state and the citizens concerning how the convicted criminals should be treated; leaving private individuals to punish offenders therefore lacks meaning, and it is ethically wrong. Consequently, there are ethical issues underlying the business conduct of private companies on how they are be motivated to offer basic and standardized care to the prisoners when their operations are motivated by profit. There have been some arguments and reservations that privatization of the penal system will lead to harsh punishments and sentences for the prisoners. The bottom line is that for a private firm to be profitable, it should be filled in order to maximize on space and facilities (Bosworth, 2002). Furthermore, privately operated prisons have been found to be more expensive than the publicly funded ones.

This is against the notion that made states to believe that private prisons can save money. This notion was proved wrong based on the study and data in Arizona, which concluded that privately operated prisons were expensive to operate than public ones and contracting prison services was likely to cost the tax payer a lot of money. It has also been established that private prisoners only house the healthy prisoners who are cheap to maintain, and they leave the expensive prisoners for the public prisons to maintain (Oppel, 2011). There have been many managerial problems that have been experienced with the privatized prisons. These problems emanate from poor drafting of contracts, limited oversight by contracting agencies and the transfer of inmates with categorization bias requirements in the case where the private prisons may lack enough resources and capabilities to provide for the inmates. Consequently, there may be few companies that are willing to provide privatized prison services hence the government may not obtain the value for its money. Last, I oppose the privatization of the American penal system because there are particular responsibilities that the government is obliged to meet like the safety of the public and the protection of the environment.

This, therefore, implies that the provision of prison and incarceration services is the political, social and moral duty of the government. Privatization of the penal system, therefore, will mean that there will be a constitutional competition between the private and the public matters that surround discipline, deprivation of liberty and upholding the constitutional rights of the prisoners. Privatization, may also lead to related issues like of use force and segregation (Austin & Coventry, 2001).


Despite my opposition to the privatization of the American penal system and despite many concerns that are linked to prison privatization, the present trends indicate that intensification of prison privatization is increasing. This is despite the initiatives like FAIR Act enacted during bush administration, which established the requisite quotas for privatization.

Privatization does not, however, mean that the government absolutely abandons its responsibility since it will still be the province of the government to identify inmates to be placed under the privatization program; consequently, it is the government that selects the prison facility and the company to be contracted out, and it is the government which oversees and supervises the terms of the contract and ensures that they are followed to the letter, and furthermore, that the government evaluates the performance and progress of the contract.


Austin, J & Coventry, G. (2001). Emerging Issues on privatized Prisons. National Criminal Justice Reference Services. Retrieved on 02/11/2011 from:

pdf Bosworth, M. (2002). The U.S. federal prison. New York, NY: SAGE. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

(2011). About the Bureau of Prisons. Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved on 02/11/2011 from: http://www.bop.

gov/about/index.jsp Hartney, C. (2006). US Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Retrieved on 02/11/2011 from: http://www. Joel, D. (1988). A Guide to Prison Privatization. Heritage Organization. Retrieved on 02/11/2011 from: http://www. Oppel, R. (2011, May 18). Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings. New York Times.

Retrieved on 02/11/2011 from: Zito, M. (2003). Prison Privatization: Past and Present. International Foundation for Protection Officers.

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