Private Prisons in the Trump Era

2 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

When people think of human rights violations, they tend to ignore the human rights of those who are imprisoned. In fact, prisoners are typically not a high priority when it comes to human rights violations, with the public viewing them as receiving  just punishments for their crimes. However, it is equally important to not forget about the basic human dignity and rights of prisoners. Recently, newly-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department will reinstitute the use of private prisons to house federal inmates, reversing a directive made by the Obama administration. While the Obama administration aimed to reform the prison system and gradually eliminate the use of private prisons, Sessions is rescinding the previous directive to the Bureau of Prisons. By doing so, Sessions will continue renewing contracts with private prisons to “meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” The Trump administration could utilize private prisons to their advantage, as they hope to crack down on illegal immigration in the United States. Private prisons would house illegal detainees when state and federal prisons are full. This policy prediction is not surprising, as was evident the day after Trump was elected, when the shares of the two biggest private prisons corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO group, jumped up to as high as 43 percent. They still continue increasing, which signals their rise in as a prominent lobby group in the Trump era.

In order to understand the role of private prisons under Trump, it is imperative to clarify how the industry works. Private prisons are also known as for-profit prisons, and they operate separately from federally-operated prisons. However, federal agencies have the ability to create contracts with private prisons to house additional inmates if occupancy is near capacity,  or to save money. Although these contracts are common, private prisons have become notorious throughout the years for their mistreatment and violation of prisoners’ basic rights. While it is unclear whether the private prison industry will become a powerful force in politics, there are many signs pointing to willingness from the Trump administration, especially Attorney General Sessions, to reinstitute them in order to accomplish the administration’s goals for the correctional system.

Although prisons  are not known to be comfortable places, the prison industry still has a responsibility and obligation to respect the basic dignity and rights of prisoners, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds. This basic respect is often absent from the private prison industry, which has been infamous for its gross mistreatment of their prisoners. The private prison system itself is small, with only thirteen for-profit facilities in total, that hold around 22,000 inmates. This 22,000 is a small portion of the more than two million people in the American justice system. Despite their small physical presence,  the for-profit prison corporations exert their influence in  the politics of the U.S. criminal justice system due to their massive lobbying power. Any leniency in immigration detention or drug laws would be a loss, so prison corporations such as CCA and GEO spend millions of dollars lobbying against reforming immigration and drug laws. Therefore, for-profit prison companies will certainly benefit from the Trump administration taking an aggressive stance on the detaining of illegal immigrants. Reestablishing the prominence of the private prison industry would be a huge mistake by Trump administration.  

There are many problems with the private prison industry’s lobbying tactics, but the biggest issue is their poor handling of prisoners. Furthermore, they have  proven to be expensive, and not cost-effective for the federal government. Their lobbying is one of the many factors contributing to the problem of massive incarceration in the United States, which will be further exacerbated if the Trump administration manages to accomplish its goals of massive deportation. Mass incarceration is a heavy burden on the federal government’s budget, wasting millions of dollars when the money could be spent on better programs and sectors of the population.  In previous years, the federal government even agreed that private prisons are very low-quality compared to federally-run prisons. Private prisons, unlike federal ones, do not offer rehabilitations services like education and job training like some state and federal prisons are starting to offer. Due to the lack of such services, for-profit prisons do not help in reducing recidivism rates in the United States, another contributing factor to the problem of mass incarceration.  But despite the Justice Department’s previous stance on the for-profit prison corporations, Trump and Sessions still seem adamant on reversing Obama’s initiatives to eliminate their use.

The U.S. prison system has a disproportionately high amount of Black and Latino prisoners, but this disproportion is even more acute in private prisons. This disproportion is because of the structure of the contracts and the limitations on which prisoners are accepted by for-profit prisons. For-profit prisons prefer to accept prisoners who are young and healthy because their care is less expensive and a vast number of prisoners in the federal and state prison systems fit this description, and are disproportionately men of color. Older and ill prisoners require more supervision, thus taking away from the prison’s profits in the long-term. This is indicative of another problem: private prisons prioritize maximizing their profits over maintaining the health and well-being of their prisoners, hence why there are so many human rights violations in the first place.

Over the years, for-profit prisons have received criticism for their abuse of prisoners. In order to save money, private prison officials will often hire under qualified staff to take care of prisoners, leading to poorer quality care for inmates. This problem is especially true when it comes to providing inmates with proper medical care.  Profit as motive encourages corporations to hire minimum staff members for maximum profit. Another way for corporations like CCA and GEO to maximize profits is to intentionally increase the sentence of their prisoners by handing out arbitrary and unnecessary infractions. Thus, inmates are unconstitutionally and immorally forced to remain in prison longer than their original sentence. Private prisons are also more dangerous for both the staff and the prisoners. Reports show that there are significantly more assaults in private prisons than public prisons between inmates themselves or between the prison staff and inmates, resulting in a tense and unsafe atmosphere for all. Worse yet, prisoners are harshly and unfairly punished for infractions through the use of force and the use of solitary confinement, which severely impacts the mental health of inmates when used for long periods of time. Sometimes private prisons do not even use solitary confinement as a form of punishment; but use solitary confinement cells to maximize space when necessary.

Although the federal government seems to believe that contracting with for-profit prison corporations saves money, reports show that they do not “save substantially on costs” and do not save taxpayers significant money compared to federal prisons.  The best course of action would be continuation of the Obama administration’s original goal of gradually reducing the use of private prisons. It is highly unfortunate that the Trump administration plans to substantially increase their use instead to accommodate their aggressive actions on illegal immigration. Even though phasing out private prisons will not immediately erase the problem of mass incarceration, it will still be a progressive step. Financial incentives aside, one must consider the principle behind eliminating the for-profit prison industry to protect the rights of the inmates who are forced into and currently suffering under the system’s many unconstitutional flaws and violations.

by: Shiyuan Wang