Capital and the Carceral State: Prison Privatization in the United States and United Kingdom

Capital and the Carceral State: Prison Privatization in the United States and United Kingdom

. 9 min read

“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.

A Brief History of Prison Privatization

The story of prison privatization in the United States begins before the end of slavery. One example of early prison privatization took place in 1844, when Louisiana turned over the operations of its penitentiary to a private company that used the facility as a factory where prison laborers had to manufacture clothing. Today, the 13th Amendment still allows corporations to extract labor from those trapped between the walls of America’s prisons, but prison labor is not the only way that businesses profit off the carceral system. They also make money by operating the prisons themselves.

With the increasingly punitive sentencing policies passed during the 1980s as part of the War on Drugs, the incarcerated population grew, and so did the demand for prisons. By 2015, the incarcerated population had grown from 500,000 in 1980 to over two million. Rates of imprisonment continue to diverge along racial lines, with African Americans imprisoned at a rate over five times that of whites. In response to the rapidly expanding number of prisoners, the government turned to the private prison industry, which argued that it could house more people at a lower cost. Thus, in 1984, the company CoreCivic opened the first private prison, located in Tennessee. Sixty-six more private prisons opened in the following 6 years alone.

Just like in the United States, the story of modern prison privatization in the United Kingdom began in the 1980s, when the ruling Conservative Party saw privatization as a solution to rising incarceration rates, prison expenses, and the overall decline in the quality of public prisons. They believed that private prisons would be more cost-effective and provide higher-quality services.

Prior to constructing the first private prison in Britain, a parliamentary committee researched prisons in England, Wales, and the United States, compiling their findings in a 1987 report that endorsed prison privatization. Their recommendations came to fruition in the early 1990s, as sentencing policies grew increasingly strict under Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who argued that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.”

In this climate, the first private prison in the United Kingdom, known as Her Majesty’s Prison Wolds, finally opened in May 1992. Following more legislation, private companies could eventually sign contracts with the government that allowed them to construct and operate prisons in the United Kingdom. Prison privatization still expanded after the Labour Party came to power in 1997 under Prime Minister Tony Blair. During his campaign, Blair pledged that he would be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.” Being “tough on the causes of crime” meant implementing social programs that would prevent crime from occurring in the first place. Meanwhile, the “tough on crime” stance involved a more punitive approach, such as strengthening policing. Since Blair’s vision for a criminal justice system still included an emphasis on a “tough on crime” approach facilitating greater incarceration, it should come as little surprise that the Labour party eventually supported the construction of more private prisons to house new inmates.

“It was really a way to get more cells built quickly,” said one of the Prison Service’s previous finance directors, Julian Le Vay. “The public sector was hopeless so they gave private companies a chance.” Just as the United States used private prisons to house the rapidly expanding prison population during the War on Drugs, the United Kingdom turned to private prisons to house the large influx of new inmates resulting from strict sentencing policies. Now, the rate at which Britain detains its prisoners in private facilities is twice that in the United States. However, it is important to note that even though Britain detains a greater percentage of prisoners in private facilities, it still has a smaller total prison population. While the United Kingdom currently holds around 83,000 people in prison, the United States has an incarcerated population of almost 2.3 million. This staggering statistic reveals that even though both countries have developed a reliance on private prisons, the United States must address its uniquely harsh history of mass incarceration.

The Dangerous Cost of Private Prisons

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. At one Texas jail privately operated by La Salle Corrections, guards pepper-sprayed and suffocated a man on Christmas Eve. The temporary guards who killed him had not been required to complete the 96 hours of training required of permanent guards before they started working in the prison. Although Texas legislators agreed on a bill that places more restrictions on unlicensed guards, this new bill still lets guards work in facilities before finishing all of their training. La Salle Corrections’ choice to take advantage of laws allowing them to employ temporary guards who have not completed extensive training represents another attempt to cut back on costs and increase profits at the expense of its inmates.

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 dangers of prison privatization are also apparent in the United Kingdom, where the government had to reassert control over the privately-operated HMP Birmingham after inspectors discovered pools of blood and vomit on the floor of the facility. According to one study based on data collected from October 2017 to September 2018 in England and Wales, 156 more assaults occurred for every 1,000 prisoners in private adult facilities than in public facilities. “These figures will further fuel fears that privatisation is leading to corners being cut as private companies treat our prisons system as a money-making exercise,” said Burgon. Just like in the United States, private prisons in the United Kingdom may have poor conditions due to corporations’ profit incentive.

Nonetheless, some have continued to defend prison companies’ initiatives to improve the quality of their services. One manager at G4S, a major operator of private prisons in the United Kingdom, said that his company “has invested heavily in innovative initiatives to reduce violence in our prisons, such as peer-led mentoring, family interventions and personalised management plans for men with complex needs, which are widely praised by independent inspectors.” However, despite claiming to improve its services, it was the G4S-operated Birmingham prison that the government had to seize control of after discovering its unacceptable conditions.

“We need to identify whether there was something happening in Birmingham that could be waiting to happen in other private prisons,” said one prominent member of parliament calling for greater transparency in privately-operated facilities. In this vein, the opposition Labour Party hopes to curb the influence of private prisons in the United Kingdom should they win the 2022 elections given that the system of for-profit privatization is immoral in and of itself.

Maintain, Reform, of Abolish?

Comparing the development of private prisons in the United States and United Kingdom has two main implications for debates on prison privatization. First, 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.

One might argue that both countries could take a stance against corporate influence by implementing reforms that hold prisons companies accountable. Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a Brennan Center Senior Fellow, discovered a potential strategy for reform while visiting private prisons in New Zealand and Australia. The strategy requires governments to set higher standards in their contracts with private prison companies. According to these contracts, the state rewards corporations with a bonus if their former inmates do not return to prison, and it punishes companies if their prisons have poor living conditions. Therefore, this system uses companies’ profit incentive to improve prisons rather than cut back on their services.

For example, the government contract for the privately-operated Ravenhall Correctional Facility in Australia dictates that if the prison’s recidivism rate decreases by 12 percent, it will be rewarded with up to 2 million dollars. It will also receive more money for reducing the recidivism rate of indigenous populations to 14 percent less than in public prisons. While the US system incentivizes companies to cut back on prison services to increase profits, Australia’s public-private contracts encourage companies to spend more money on services that will help inmates rejoin society after they leave. Australia and New Zealand’s contracting method has seen some positive results. Although Australia’s Ravenhall facility has not been open long enough to know with certainty whether or not the new contracting system is effective, the prison’s manager claimed that the recidivism rate for the facility was lower than the state recidivism rate. Furthermore, a private prison in New Zealand, which has a contract similar to the one at Ravenhall, managed to reduce its recidivism rate and subsequently received a bonus in 2018.

While the United States and United Kingdom could adopt similar reforms and only sign contracts with companies that agree to provide high-quality services for inmates, this reformed version of prison privatization is still unethical because it normalizes the expansion of an unforgiving carceral state. In this light, solidarity against corporate influence requires more than just regulations on corporations themselves.

However, if reform is not the answer, then what is? This question points to a second crucial implication of the comparison between prison privatization in the United States and United Kingdom.

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.

Some politicians have already advocated for such an approach. For example, former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders advocated for an end to prison privatization and envisions sweeping changes in the criminal justice system. His recommendations include abolishing harsh mandatory minimums, stopping the use of cash bail, and working to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. Further changes could include increased funding for youth, education, and mental health programs.

The idea behind these reforms is to address the social conditions that drive mass incarceration in the first place: “Rather than dusting down old policy announcements that repeat the mistakes of the past, ministers should be showing us how they will tackle the bigger issues that drive crime – health inequalities, homelessness and a shrinking economy,” said Frances Cooke, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity organization based in the United Kingdom.

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.