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Privatized Prisons: A Problem rather than a Solution?

By Neal Modi | March 5, 2012 | No Comments

Across the nation, over 30 states have privatized their formerly state-owned, state-run prisons.  Some research shows that private prisons themselves save money in comparison to their state-run counterparts, while also putting pressure on the public prison system to thwart the cost escalations.  This would seem to be a win-win for legislators in Richmond, especially when state taxpayers pay $29,000 per year, per inmate.

But, wait! Not so fast!  Every policy deserves due diligence.  The privatization of prisons, while on the surface appears to be an attractive, affordable, and cost-saving proposition, on closer look becomes far more problematic.

Here’s why.  It turns out that privatizing prisons creates an incentive for incarceration rates to grow.  There are chilling news stories from across the nation where private prison corporations and their lobbying wings have pushed for tougher sentencing laws ensuring that a steady supply of prisoners enter their facilities’ doors.  The policy creates a structure where private prisons have no incentive to rehabilitate their prison population, either.  This is because recidivism works to their advantage.

Also troubling is that corporations with a stake in private prisons have invested heavily in political campaigns. The Corrections Corporation of America, America’s largest private prison enterprise, has, since 1997, donated over $29,000 to political campaigns in Virginia. Likewise, the Wackenhut Corporation, the company responsible for Virginia’s sole private prison, has donated $6,000 since 1998.

In a time when many believe prisons are not effectively rehabilitating prisoners and when people are being sent to prison for minor crimes, the growing trend of privatized prisons exacerbates the already well-established problems many have with the prison system. In Virginia, we have one such prison, the Lawrenceville Correctional Center.  While this 1,500 bed, medium-security facility may relieve a state burden, we need to ask whether it is doing as much harm as good.

As Virginia legislators decide how to put forth a strong and safe budget, they must be aware of the ethical and moral consequences of their choices. Privatizing our state’s prisons is an example where ethical sentiments ought to outweigh practical ones.

Put differently, some things should remain in the public hands.  Unless private prisons can focus more on rehabilitation, and not just ensuring all their beds are full, they won’t deserve a place in our Commonwealth.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee

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