Joseph A. Slipke

Private prisons can be a profitable and secure substitute to government run prisons.  Private prisons are able to be profitable by controlling the administrational cost of operating the facilities, and at the same time must adhere to high governmental standards to maintain the right to operate.

As a country, we are confronted with many issues and responsibilities.  One of the prevailing issues is the administration of the already overcrowded prison system.  According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, more than two million men and women are behind bars in the United States. (1)  The exploding prison population has been propelled by public policy changes that have increased the use of prison sentences as well as the length of time served through mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes” laws, reductions in the availability of parole or early release, and the War on Drugs campaign. (2)  The overcrowding of prisons has consistently had numerous negative effects on prisoners.  Because the experts do not agree on how to solve the problem of overcrowding there is no right answer, just possible solutions.  Some components of the justice system contend that building more prisons, privatization, or design is the immediate solution to the problem.  Their opponents argue that other methods could be used to solve the problem of prison overcrowding.  These alternative methods include the problem-solving courts such as drug courts. (3)  Fortunately, the private sector has stepped up to help with this problem, but also take advantage of the profitability in this venture.


Evidence Supporting Privatization

The privatization movement involves containing labor costs, which is a serious issue.  Roughly 70 to 75% of the costs of operating a prison go to staff salaries, fringe benefits, and overtime compensation. (4)  Administering these costs is difficult to achieve with unionized government workers.  Private institutions, however, use non-union and contracted labor, allowing for the lowest benefit packages.  With non-union and contracted labor, government restrictions that interfere with efficient personnel management such as hiring, firing, promotion, salary setting, distribution of duties, work schedules, vacations, and overtime can be avoided.  In general, private institutions contend that they can save around 20% in prison operations when the cost of labor is efficiently handled. (5)

A further way the private industry can manage cost is that the private sector has greater flexibility in the obtainment process.  Private sector contractors are not restricted by the same burdensome and rigid government procurement system. (6)  Private vendors have the convenient ability to purchase goods and services quicker.  For instance, they can maintain lower food, supplies, and equipment inventories and negotiate a better price for these goods. Competition between contractors whom supply the goods will help in holding down the costs and provide for better service.  Contract renewals are always on the line if service becomes questionable. (7) 

A frequently asked question by individuals in government and the public is; What happens in the case of a strike? Prison guards that are on contract do not have the right to strike. However, with the absence of this right, it does not prevent guards from joining in strikes and other job actions.  Of course, any major disruption at a privately owned prison could allow the government to cancel a contract. (8)  The threat of termination because of contract loss or being fired from the position is a strong factor against a strike. In any case, the National Guard and state police will provide the ultimate backup for prison staff, be it private or public.

A subsequent question is; What happens in the event of a riot or an escape?  In truth, the experience of privately run prisons with regard to riot or escape has been no worse off compared to government operated facilities. (9)  Most contracts stipulate that privately managed prisons abide to the laws and regulations set down by the government.  Ironically, at various times, this is more heavily monitored than the government correctional facilities. It is also important to keep in mind that the privately operated prison contracts always include an emergency plan to handle strikes, riots, or even bankruptcy.

Objections for Privatization 


 A recurring statement promulgated by certain activists against privatization is that “private prisons cannot be as safe and secure as a government run prison because they are only interested in the profits.” (10)  Well according to a report done by the Bureau of Justice Assistance from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004, violations per 1,000 inmates were 42.3% and deaths per 1,000 inmates were 2.9% for government facilities.  Compared against private facilities, violations per 1,000 inmates were 50.5% and deaths per 1,000 inmates were 0.7% between January 1 and December 31, 1997. (11)  I think this would suggest that private prisons and public prison have about the same amount of problems.  However, I believe it would be more practical to operate a prison that is economically more feasible than one that eats away at tax dollars.

Due to the investing interest in private prisons, the profitability of investing in this system seems to be creating more facilities, opening every year.  Clear and convincing evidence in the United States and elsewhere shows that privatizing criminal correctional facilities results in better public service at a lower cost than government operation. From my own understanding, it seems that when the modern correctional privatization movement started, it was widely believed that the private role was only going to apply to smaller facilities with low-security risk prisoners. However, today, it appears to be common to see large contract awards for facilities with capacities of between 1,000 and 2,000 prisoners and for prisoners requiring medium or high security.  An increasing body of research finds that contracting out corrections reduces costs, improves service quality and yields other benefits as well. Critics who initially argued that contracting with private companies could not save money have been proved wrong.  As far as the government is concerned, the private prison statement system is a good thing, and I believe they are here to stay. 

U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 

Edwards E., (2005). Publicizing Private Prisons. Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.,

Charles H. Logan, 2006.

 Volokh, A. (2008). Privatization and the Law and Economics of Political Advocacy. Stanford Law Review, 60 (4), 1197-1253.

Joel D., (1998). A Guide to Prison Privatization. The Heritage Foundation. 2008,

Berry Yeoman, “The Best Business Stories of the Year.” 2007 Edition, Vintage Books,  New York, 2007, p. 282-296

 Edwards E., (2005). Publicizing Private Prisons. Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.,

Prison Privatization: Objections and Refutations, University of Connecticut, 1998

James Austin, Ph.D., Garry Coventry, Ph.D.,,  

Joel D., (1998). A Guide to Prison Privatization. The Heritage Foundation. 2008,

Berry Yeoman, “The Best Business Stories of the Year.” 2007 Edition, Vintage Books,  New York, 2007, p. 282-296

 Prison Privatization: Objections and Refutations, University of Connecticut, 1998

James Austin, Ph.D., Garry Coventry, Ph.D.,,  



How Much Health Costs 

Gabriella Tzeneva

As established by the Supreme Court ruling of Estelle v. Gamble in 1976, states are required to provide timely and adequate medical services to people incarcerated in prison. A recent trend, however, towards contracting out medical care for prisoners “to managed correctional health care providers”, has rested those inherently public obligations in the hands of private companies that exist to make a profit–thus, striking some controversy.

Theoretically, there would be no ethical concern regarding the use of private health care providers, like Wexford Health Incorporated, if there was unequivocal evidence that they are, indeed, fulfilling the goals they have set themselves– “to meet or exceed the standards of care established by national evidence-based guidelines.” But research indicates otherwise.  

A number of studies have been conducted on the quality of prison health care and they speak of stark deficiencies in the delivery of services. Ted Pearson, noted in his report to the Prison Health Subcommittee of the HJR 80 Committee of the Illinois State Legislature, that “while most health care workers within the system are dedicated to fulfilling their responsibility, [they] are severely constrained by insufficient staff and other resources.”As a result, Pearson says that the study that was initiated in 1998, upon the receipt of a number of letters from prisoners voicing concern for unaddressed medical issues, established that the “health care delivered to prisoners within the system is uneven in quality.” Pearson and his organization, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, are collecting statistics on medical neglect and mistreatment in Illinois prisons, and hoping to file a class-action lawsuit.

Their findings are further confirmed by anecdotal evidence from a number of prisoner letters that paint a similar picture of the staff and services provided by prison health care. Thermon Walker of Stateville C.C. wrote, “There have been cases where men complained about having pains but were not seen by a doctor or when they were, they were misdiagnosed”. He attributes such problems to lack of concern from the medical staff, – “We need doctors who are skilled and want to treat people”. He says the prisoners struggle with the lack of professionalism from some staff. “It’s ok if people don’t like you, but it is totally wrong for them to refuse to do their job, based on their feelings. This is not only unprofessional but also unethical.”

But as Will Hylton, the author of “Sick on the inside” says, “Like so many things in prison, “malpractice” is inscrutable. Negligence is not necessarily enough for a lawsuit.”However, if negligence practices are indeed present at Illinois prisons, someone has to make a stand and ask the necessary questions:- How are the “Quality Management Programs” administered? Who is responsible for monitoring the health care providers and their practices? How are grievances dealt with?

Wexford Health Incorporated was contacted via phone 2 times, and each time the customer service representative was asked the above questions. Twice, two different people were unable to connect the interviewer with higher authority, or provide answers to the questions. Such failure points to lack of transparency and accountability of those that are responsible for one of the most important duties states have to those incarcerated in prison.

Other research by Will Hylton on the topic of health care, conducted through the interviews with a number of nurses, employed by the private health care providers, states the following: “They [the health care companies] don’t want anyone to know what’s going on it these facilities. Getting medical records and company documents is like going up against Fort Knox” Indeed, obtaining medical records of prisoners, even anonymously, is almost an impossible task for any group wishing to research and monitor the practices of health care providers, which begs the question :-Why such secrecy, if there is nothing to hide?

But sporadic events like the indictment of “a former head of the Illinois Department of Corrections-Donald N. Snyder, Jr,” , in 2007, for allegedly accepting $50,000 in kickbacks by an Illinois prison consultant representing “vendors that had multi-million-dollar contracts with the state prison agency”, imply that private health care in prisons carries the risk of causing a conflict in interest between duties and profit, that can eventually lead to corruption and poor quality of services being provided. In an article about prison privatization, The Economist concurs: “Cutting costs through privatization always sounds like an attractive option; but cutting exactly the right deal with private providers of such a crucial service is difficult, and the price of failure is high.”Indeed, the price is too steep to pay— and a human life diminished or wasted in prison is not worth the barter of cutting costs.  



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