United Kingdom and United States: capital and the carceral state

Prison privatization

“The incarceration of human beings for profit is immoral.”

These are the words that Richard Burgon, the spokesperson for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, used to describe the fundamental problem with private prisons.

While many regard criminal justice as a function of the state alone, private corporations exercise significant influence in the carceral system. The process of prison privatization is simple: companies make contracts with their respective government in which they agree to manage correctional facilities in return for a payment from the state. They profit by charging more than the cost of running the facility but less than it would cost the government to run its own public facilities.

Around the world, at least 11 countries use prison privatization, including the United States and the United Kingdom. How is it that private corporations expanded their influence in both countries’ justice systems? More importantly, what are the dangers of prison privatization, and what is the proper response?

Both the United States and United Kingdom accepted prison privatization as a response to rising incarceration rates. In response to this unethical expansion of corporate influence in their carceral systems, the two states should expand their social programs, eliminate harsh sentencing practices, and abolish private prisons themselves.

Proponents of prison privatization argue that the government should continue the practice because private facilities cost less than public facilities, but private prisons may not actually have a clear cost advantage. Researchers have published several studies on the issue. For instance, in 2007, a group from the University of Utah described how “cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal.” In fact, research from the Arizona Department of Corrections indicated that many of its private prisons avoided accepting individuals who have severe medical conditions. Because inmates in private facilities are generally healthier, they require less medical attention and are less expensive to house.

If inmates in private prisons develop a condition that requires more intensive medical attention, the private facilities send them to state prisons who must shoulder the increased healthcare costs, thereby creating the false perception that private prisons are less expensive.

Furthermore, it is actually the use of cost-reducing methods that make private prisons so dangerous. Because companies have a profit incentive to reduce their operating costs, they often cut back on crucial services, such as cleaning. In a 2016 report, the Justice Department indicated that inmates did not have access to proper healthcare in private facilities and that the rate of inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults are higher than in public prisons.

Aside from poor living conditions, some critics of prison privatization argue that the use of such a system is unethical because the companies who operate the prisons have a vested interest in maintaining mass incarceration, so they lobby for policies and candidates that will put more people in prison. CoreCivic alone spent an average of US$1.4 million per year from 1999 to 2010 in federal lobbying efforts, according to the Sentencing Project. Furthermore, CoreCivic agreed in 2012 that it would buy prisons in 48 states as long as these states maintained a threshold occupancy rate.

Such a compromise encourages states to take a tougher stance on crime and send more people to prison.

The expansion of prison privatization in both countries speaks to a broader trend in which corporations and big money influence politics in the United States and United Kingdom.

Investment in the criminal justice system is one way that private entities cement their grip on power at the expense of communities of color.

While the United States and United Kingdom each have their own unique histories of racial injustice and must combat the continued influence of racism according to their individual contexts, they must also stand together in solidarity against corporate abuses.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom adopted prison privatization in response to rising incarceration rates. This similarity between the two countries emphasizes how prison privatization is not only caused by growing corporate influence but also by a drive to put more people in prison.

“If you didn’t have so many people locked up, we wouldn’t need the extra beds the private prisons provide,” said Alex Friedmann, the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center.Therefore, any response to prison privatization must include efforts to prevent mass incarceration itself.

By abolishing private prisons while implementing policies that address mass incarceration, the United Kingdom and United States can begin to effectively address the conditions that give rise to prison privatization in the first place. Such structural reforms to both countries’ criminal justice systems are long overdue, and the time for change is now.