Private prison companies have seen their fortunes rebound — six months after losing half their value on the stock market — thanks to a friendlier administration in the White House. But the increasing privatization of this aspect of the criminal justice system has generated renewed concern among Catholics.
In August 2016, the two largest private prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, lost $2.2 billion in stock market valuation, after the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would cease to house federal inmates in private prisons. The Department of Homeland Security also had announced it would review its policy of contracting with private prison companies.
That changed with the election of President Donald Trump, who has voiced support for private prisons. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the course and announced the DOJ would not phase out the use of private prisons.
Private prisons hold, as of 2015, around 7 percent of state inmates, or 91,300 people. For federal prisoners, 34,900 inmates, or 18
In recent decades, under pressure from overcrowding, as a result of stricter sentencing laws and increased imprisonment of low level offenders, states, beginning with Kentucky in 1986, turned to private prisons to house their inmates.
Today, private prisons are located in 30 states, though they tend to thrive particularly in the South and West. New Mexico houses 43 percent of its inmates in private prisons, while Montana and Idaho use private prisons for 40 percent and 36 percent of inmates, respectively. Six states — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas — supply over half the inmates held in private state prisons.
The private prison industry also is heavily concentrated in a few companies. According to the Hamilton Project, a think tank within the Brookings Institute, the three largest firms, CoreCivic, GEO Group and MTC, furnish 96 percent of private prison beds.
Marc Howard, a government professor at Georgetown University, told Our Sunday Visitor that private prisons began with “a very simple, appealing logic: why not have a company do it instead of the government, because companies are more efficient.”
Alexander Volokh, associate law professor at Emory University, told OSV that private prisons still could do better than their public counterparts.
“There is a lot of untapped potential in privatization,” he said.
The cost savings have been difficult to prove, however: private prisons often can reject certain inmates, leading to a population that can be less troublesome and healthier than public prisons. While isolated studies have claimed savings up to 15 percent, most studies on the subject tend to the view that overall, private prisons have not produced significant cost-savings to taxpayers, compared to public prisons.
Recidivism rates, perhaps the most important measure for society of a prison, have not been found to differ between public and private prisons.
Demands of justice
Aside from the negligible savings, there are significant arguments against the use of private prisons. Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, told OSV “the biggest argument against [private prisons] is that we should not be profiting off a person’s incarceration. It’s morally reprehensible.”
“If you think about what the model of a private prison is, which is to do things for less money and therefore make more money for shareholders, their incentive is to do everything as cheaply as possible and give as little as possible,” Howard told OSV. “There’s no incentive whatsoever to help make people better.”
The Catholic Church also has objected to private prisons. In 2000, the U.S. bishops published a statement on criminal justice, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.” In the letter, the bishops questioned the ability of private corporations to run prisons.
“The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change behaviors, treat substance abuse, and offer skills necessary for reintegration into the community,” the statement said.
Amy Levad, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, told OSV that “the undergirding rationalization for private prison doesn’t make sense from a Catholic moral perspective.”
While the Church in the United States has emphasized rehabilitation and restorative justice in its approach to criminal justice, “the emphasis of private prisons is to generate profit,” she said, through keeping occupancy full.
“It works to their benefit for people to keep on coming back to prison over and over again.”
“Alongside that, the Catholic Church upholds human dignity as the basis for all morality,” Levad continued, pointing out the multiple ways that private prisons had fallen short, either through failing to hire enough correctional officers to ensure the safety of prisoners, offering lower quality health care for inmates, or providing less training to corrections staff.
Profit at the margins
“All in all, it ends up not serving the common good,” she said, “for prisoners, employees, and communities.”
Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, told OSV that private prison contracts created “more incentive for incarceration and detention.”
“We prefer an incentive to reintegrate people into the community, where they can contribute and have full restorative justice,” she said.
Allmon also noted as a point of concern the treatment of women in prisons, within which stillbirth and miscarriage occur at higher than average rates in Texas.
One area where the use of private prisons intersects with another concern of Catholic teaching is in their use in detention of immigrants, including families, along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The executive orders signed by President Trump earlier this year call for vast expansion of detention facilities. According to a report, “Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System,” released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies of New York in May 2015, for-profit companies administered nine of the 10 largest immigration detention centers in the United States.
The report called for a substantial reduction in the number of detention centers and the role of for-profit prison companies in operating these centers, and said that detention, something that should not be used against families or as a deterrent, should be a last resort. “The current legal and physical detention infrastructure should be largely dismantled,” it stated.
Nicholas W. Smith writes from New York.