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When Prisons Go Corporate

Brett Burkhardt examines the private prison industry

By Megan Tucker

In the United States, private companies manage about 7 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent of federal prisoners. In 2015, those numbers constituted 8 percent — a little over 100,000 people — of all prisoners in the country, an 83 percent increase since 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Brett Burkhardt

Critics raise moral and ethical concerns of having for-profit companies manage incarceration and rehab centers. They argue that companies will cut costs in their drive to make money — likely in training, number of employees or compensation, leading to subpar services. Supporters of private prisons contend that the government saves money through privatization. However, evidence of reduced public expenditures is murky at best, consisting mostly of anecdotes and the few official reports available to researchers.

“It’s hard to get information about private prison operations, because companies view that information as trade secrets, despite the fact that they’re contracting with the government,” says Brett Burkhardt, professor of sociology at Oregon State University. “With the government, normally you can submit a freedom of information request and they are legally obligated to disclose the information, but that’s not the case with private prisons.”

Burkhardt graduated with a B.A. in sociology, from Linfield College 2002 and received master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently has three ongoing projects, the largest of which examines government use of private prisons operated by corporations for profit. The majority of these corporations are publicly traded companies such as CoreCivic — formerly the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)—and GEO Group.

Burkhardt analyzes power systems through the example of private prisons, which increase the power of the private sector by allowing them more influence in dealing with convicts. He focuses on the political and cultural forces that initially gave rise to prison privatization as well as how private prisons perform.

Megan Lynn Tucker from Terra magazine interviewed Burkhardt to discuss his research. Below are excerpts from the conversation.


Terra: When did private prisons become more commonplace? What spiked this increase in the use of private companies to run prisons?

Burkhardt: Government was in charge of most of the prison industry for the majority of the 20th century, but really, the modern private prison industry grew up in the mid 1980s. There are two reasons for that. One is that, that was the beginning of what would eventually be a massive increase in the prison population, and so federal and state governments simply didn’t have enough space to put all these prisoners. The second issue was that politically it was a time of conservatism in the sense that free markets are the way we create an efficient society, and government is really ineffective and inept at solving problems. So, on the one hand we know we have this prison population — we need more prisons — but also we know that government is not going to be able to do it, so we will let the private sector do it. So it was really the confluence of those two things that allowed the prison industry to spring up. 

Terra: What are the moral and ethical concerns of privately run prisons? Should we reserve punishment for crimes against society to the government?

Burkhardt: That’s always been one argument against private prisons, that punishment is a government responsibility. Government represents the people, and when we punish crimes we act on behalf of the people. Private companies act on their own behalf to maximize profits and revenues. So that’s always been a major argument against the industry, and it hasn’t really carried the day.

What’s more compelling to a lot of people is the argument that we can save money by doing this. And that’s not totally borne out in the evidence, but it’s a very compelling argument. A lot of people do have a moral issue with it and say that criminal punishment must be done by the government. We cannot pay people and fund a business model that’s based on punishing people.


Terra: What spiked the recent concerns about private prisons in the United States?

Burkhardt: Over the last 10 years or so, there’s been a growing recognition that the prison population in general is unsustainably large. One issue is that it’s just too expensive and people don’t want to pay for it, but in general there’s recognition that the prison population is too large. People increasingly realize that on all sides of the political spectrum, but as an offshoot of that, people increasingly recognize there is a private prison industry which probably has something to do with the massive prison population in the U.S. I think to some extent, people are paying more attention to privatization simply because they’re more aware of prisons generally. There have also been a number of scandals and cases of abuse at private prisons, and those kinds of things always flash on the news media.

In the 2016 presidential election both democratic candidates, Sanders and Clinton, came out pretty strongly and openly against privatization, so that raised it on the agenda as well. There are also pop culture things like Orange Is The New Black. I don’t actually watch that show. I understand it has some plot line involving private prisons. There are a number of things that bring this to public agenda.


Credit insunlight via Flickr / Creative Commons License

Terra: How many people do private prisons employ?

Burkhardt: That’s a good question to ask: How many people actually work in the prisons, because the companies will have executives and management. But in the actual prisons, it’s pretty common to have privately run facilities with less staff working in them. That’s one way of keeping costs down. If there are any cost savings with private prisons, it’s because they hire fewer people and typically pay less.


Terra: What are the demographics of private prisons?

Burkhardt: Private prisons tend to be used more for lower security inmates; they don’t tend to operate maximum security facilities. And one consequence of that is that they do get a different population in them. The prisoner populations in private prisons tend to have fewer needs; they are lower risk generally; they serve shorter sentences; they tend to be slightly less white, so slightly larger populations of Hispanic or black inmates. They tend to be younger as well.

Private prisons also tend to employ more women and minorities then federal prisons, which raises ethical question about paying them less.


Terra: Why don’t private prison companies run maximum security prisons?

Burkhardt: I don’t know. There are two possible explanations, and I don’t think anyone’s really answered this. But one possibility is that the companies just don’t want to take on that responsibility. Either because they don’t think they have the capacity to do it, or they don’t want to have the image of operating real prisons.

The other possibility is that policy makers, or the public at large, simply don’t want that to happen. There is a cutoff point to how much you can delegate to private business. I think we as a society are OK with giving them low-risk inmates. We’re not really OK with giving them the worst of the worst.

One way you can see that is to think about terrorists. Terrorists. A big threat to our society. So what do we do with them? We send them off to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. They need their own prison in a whole separate country in the middle of the ocean. But we would not think of having GEO Group run a prison for terrorists because, culturally, we are not willing to grant that authority to a private business. So we reserve the government function of punishment for certain types of offenses.

Why do privates not operate maximum security prisons? It’s either because they don’t want to do it, or because we don’t want them to do it.

Terra: Is there any evidence that private prisons are more cost effective than government run prisons?

Burkhardt: It’s really hard to answer that question, for a number of reasons. One is that they do tend to hold different prison populations, so it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges. One of the challenges is that private prisons carry different types of responsibilities.

So for example, in private business, you have to draw up contracts, so you need more lawyers involved, or you might have to have someone from the government on site who is monitoring and doing accountability checks and audits. That’s not really something that you have in the public system, or at least it would work a different way. So it’s really hard to do the accounting. Yes, there is some evidence. You can point to specific examples where there have been cost savings, but as a general proposition, it’s not totally obvious that simply by virtue of privatizing you will save money.

But that kind of gets to a larger point, which is that all of these things are contract dependent, so it depends on how you write the contract. Because ultimately, it’s a contract based relationship. The government is entering into a contract with a private company. The private company wants to get the most favorable terms in there; the government wants to get the most favorable terms in there. And sometimes it turns out that it costs less money for the government; sometimes it doesn’t. It comes down to how the contract is drawn out.

Terra: Since private prisons generate profit, do they create an incentive for the criminal justice system to produce more prisoners?

Burkhardt: The companies say “no.” Now, the companies will say openly that they do hire lobbyists, they do pay millions of dollars for lobbying, they do contribute to electoral campaigns — and they contributed a lot to Donald Trump’s inauguration celebration, for example. They say, “We spend money in politics,” but they say, “We’re not trying to work for harsher punishment.” It’s kind of like, “We’re letting people know we’re providing a valuable service.”

Some years ago, there was a really interesting investigation about this law in Arizona. It was called the “show me your papers law,” SB1070. It was a new state law that would have called for local law enforcement — state law enforcement — to check the immigration documents of people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. Normally, that’s the federal government’s responsibility, but this was a state law saying local law enforcement should be doing that. That would have the result of putting more people into immigrant detention. And as it turns out, private prison companies do a lot of business with immigrant detention.

Through the reporting, it turned out that private prison companies were part of this group called ALEC (the America Legislative Exchange Council), which is kind of a business-government partnership, but it’s a conservative organization, and one thing they do is develop model legislation that states can implement. One of their model bills is this law, which would crack down on immigration offenses through local law enforcement, which again would have the result of putting lots of people into detention, which is a main revenue source for these companies. So you can kind of connect the dots like that, and you can see how they influence the policy and legislation that way, but the official response is “no.

Terra: How do you predict the size and scope of the prison industry will change in the coming years?

Burkhardt: These companies will remain, but they are changing as we speak. In the past eight or nine years, the prison population reached its peak, and it started to decline just a little bit. That’s part of a broad movement to reform criminal justice and get that prison population down, and the industry recognized this is happening, and so as a result, they’re shifting into other activities.

One big one is immigrant detention. They operate a lot of immigrant detention centers, which aren’t technically prisons because they’re not designed to hold people convicted of a crime. Instead they’re holding people temporarily while they await some sort of immigration hearing or they await deportation. But they look a lot like prisons. The industry increasingly contracts with immigration and customs enforcement, which is part of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

And now it’s about 60 percent of ICE immigrant detainees that are held by a private prison company. So ICE is really relying pretty heavily on private industry and moving forward with the crack down on immigration in the U.S. in the Trump era. We can expect that the population of immigrant detainees is going to grow, and who’s going to hold them? It’s going to be a lot of private prison contracts.

So that’s one area — immigrant detention — but they also are increasingly getting into what we could call non-custodial services, things that don’t involve coercive confinement in a prison. So they operate things like halfway houses for people who were released from prison and are transitioning back into society. They operate day reporting centers, which is an arrangement where someone released from prison might have to check into the center once a day, or electronic monitoring.

Geogroup, for example, has been buying up smaller companies that make up electronic monitoring devices, operate halfway houses, and run day reporting centers. They’re bringing these smaller companies into the larger Geogroup, and have actually reclassified them into a separate division called Goecare. It’s got a humanitarian, rehabilitative aspect to it. They see that as a way of maintaining revenue and diversifying so they don’t get caught on the downside of this prison decline.

Terra: Are private prisons common in other countries?

I know most about the U.S. but there are some other countries, typically English speaking countries, which use private prisons. You can find them in Australia, somewhat in England, Scotland, South Africa; all have privatization to some extent. It’s not like it’s a wholesale takeover of their prisons, but they selectively use private prisons. But it does tend to be those English colonies.

Canada doesn’t though, that’s the exception. They toyed with the idea some years ago, but I think they eventually scrapped that. I think there was some backlash against it. For whatever reason culturally, they didn’t feel comfortable delegating that power.


Read Brett Burkhardt’s essay about private prisons on The Conversation, March 20, 2017..

Note: Megan Tucker is a junior in the colleges of Science and Liberal Arts.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.