Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Prison Privatization 101

What does that mean, anyway?

It means giving or selling off government assets to private owners. Right away, some questions arise. Those assets have been paid for, and maintained, and operated, by your money and mine: by our taxes. Are they not ours? Should we not be consulted before they are sold at any price?

The theory underlying privatization is Milton Friedman's "free market." In his view, the capitalist marketplace is perfectly self-regulating, and needs no regulation (hence "free") and ought to function even in realms traditionally operated by the federal or state goverment. Prisons come to mind.

This theory raises other questions, on the order of those we ought to direct at anyone who thinks his interpretation of the US Constitution is better than that which has prevailed for the last 250 years. Big questions occur to me, such as: What is the theory underlying government ownership of certain services and certain utilities? What incentives are introduced when these are privatized? How can the public evaluate the performance of privately-held entities, and hold them accountable when they do poorly or become corrupted?

Public (government) ownership of prisons probably stems from the constitutional role of government to maintain the public order. That is, law enforcement, the courts, and the prison system are seen as parts of one constitutional role granted to the government. Such a system theoretically has no incentives other than to maintain order efficiently. In the case of a state or federal prison, for instance, there really are no incentives to hold a prisoner longer than his or her sentence unless the public order is threatened, and in that case, lawyers, courts, and due process are involved. In fact, the economics of prison operations probably creates the incentive to discharge prisoners as soon as legally appropriate.

On the other hand, "privatized" prisons are paid by the government to discharge its penal function. Contracts are awarded based, at least theoretically, on prison economics, and owners are paid "per capita," by the head. Right away, it is obvious that the capitalist market incentive inevitably is to hold prisoners as long as possible, and to get as many prisoners as possible.

When the conservative proponents of privatization are also state and congressional lawmakers, lawyers, and judges--and staff the White House and the Department of Justice and the US Supreme Court--that incentive doesn't go away and isn't regulated. On the contrary: The so-called "tough-on-crime" contingent is very well aware that "three strikes" and mandatory sentencing increase the length of prison terms and increase the numbers of people in prisons. In this way, the "free market" is a hideous joke on those who rely on the government for our freedoms, our civil liberties, our right to fair and impartial justice. None are hurt more than people of color and the poor.

Isn't it worth considering whether the profit motive has something to do with the fact that the USA has more people in prison than any other country in the world? As of 2006, some 7 million--that's right, 7 million people were in prison, on parole, or on probation. The only other country to come close is China, and it has four times our population.

It's all a bit suspect to me, all this rush to build detention centers and the sudden concern about "illegal" immigrants. From all the data I've seen--from reputable sources, I mean--the immigrant "problem" isnt much of a problem since our economy comes out well ahead after all the costs are accounted for. Oh, there may be pockets where new arrivals create issues, but to equate that with the rampaging Mongol hordes as the Right does is ludicrous. So I'm wondering what the incentive might be to hype the immigrant situation in a way that sparks midnight roundups and detention. I'm wondering who benfits? Obviously Wackenhut and CCA and the other prison corporations gain mightily, and the contractors who provide food and beverage, laundry, and facility maintenance services gain as well.

Maybe these considerations help also to explain why our "Justice" Department--I use the term reluctantly--hasn't been all that anxious to address the gross disparities in sentences for African American, Hispanic, and Native American populations, or even the hideous problem of wrongful conviction. Maybe there are too many people at the for-profit prison trough?

This is obviously "Privatized Prisons 101." There's so much more to consider. I really hope that people younger than I am read this post, because I worry that they don't have the life history or the depth of familiarity with the Constitution and all that lies behind it to argue against privatization.

In our culture, success is equated with conspicuous consumption, with wealth, and wealth is about money, and privatization is about money. It's all too easy to forget about the social consequences when somebody's waving green stuff around.