U.S. prisons have been dangerously overcrowded for a decade, with riots and other violent incidents claiming the lives of 220 inmates last year. And, in response to mounting public criticism, the administrators at the publicly owned institutions have claimed that they could not afford to expand facilities. Then, U.S. justice officials decided to let the private sector build and manage minimum security prisons. As a result, there are now five privately run penal institutions in the United States in addition to the 42 federal and 529 state conventional institutions. Advocates of the new-style prisons defend them as cost efficient, but critics have dismissed them as “prisons for profit.”
The first private prison was the 22inmate Weaversville Intensive Treatment Unit for juvenile offenders in Pennsylvania. RCA took over management of the institute from the state in December, 1976, and it now reports a seven-per-cent profit on the yearly fee of approximately $900,000 that it charges the state. In the past year private companies have built four more facilities. The companies argue that they can build more cheaply than the government, and save on labor costs because their guards and staff are usually nonunion.
The critically overcrowded U.S. inmate population almost doubled to 430,000 in 1983 from 230,000 in 1974 and last year, in New York state alone, the prison population reached a record
30,018 in a system designed to hold 26,092. As a result, private companies, including such well-known firms as RCA, E.F. Hutton and Control Data Inc., and several smaller companies, have begun to develop the beginnings of a parallel prison system.
Some observers are highly critical of the new prisons. Mark Gray, labor economist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, objected to the nonunion status of many employees, adding that the owners’ attempts to maximize profits may lead to a reduction in the living standards of inmates and poorer wages and benefits for employees. Added Edward Koren, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union: “We have to be concerned about conditions of confinement. I am not so sure the investment bankers are going to be that concerned.”
In Canada there are no official plans for private prisons. Jacques Belanger, spokesman for the Correctional Service of Canada, said that the overcrowding problem is not as severe as it is in the United States. Commented Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia: “If the program is not working to start with, contracting that program out to the private sector may make it cheaper but it will not make it more effective.” The challenge for the new U.S. prison entrepreneurs will be to demonstrate their ability to run prisons not only for profit but also for the benefit of society.
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