2007-02-01

Big Prison

Free market advocates argue that privatization is always a good thing. I definitely agree that it is often a good thing, or even mostly a good thing. But there are some things that should not ever be for profit. Prison is one of them. Unfortunately, private prisons are very much a reality. The biggest prison company, Corrections Corp ("dozens of facilities in 20 states"), has a "myths" page:
MYTH: Private prison companies are in the immoral business of profiting from prisons.
REALITY: No one would argue that people providing these dangerous, difficult and meaningful services should be denied compensation for their efforts. The fact that they work for a company or for a government agency in no way diminishes the significance or importance of the services they provide. However, if a company can partner with government to provide the same or better level of service at a cost savings then those saved tax dollars can in theory be appropriated to other meaningful services like education, healthcare for the poor, or other social justice initiatives.
Let's wade through this stream of BS. First of all, they're not answering the challenge (that it's immoral for them to even exist). They talk about how the prison staff should be well-compensated, which is completely irrelevant (since the people doing the dirty work aren't making any more than they would in a government-run prison*), and how a private prison could "in theory" (their words) be helpful for the government "partnering" with the company, which is also irrelevant. Whether or not the government saves some tax money doesn't have anything to do with the morality of profiting from incarceration.

Moral arguments, of course, have little sway in a free market environment. When the primary incentive is to make money, all of the company's actions are going to be to that end. The general free market argument goes something like this: Companies that provide superior products and services will do more business. Therefore market competition ensures quality. Or, as the prison biz spinners say:
MYTH: Private prison companies are beholden to their shareholders’ interests above the interests and well-being of their government customers and the inmates in their care.
REALITY: All companies are contractually required to deliver a certain level of service. Failure to do so results in lost contracts and ultimately going out of business.
The problem with this line of argument is that it is simply not true. Lower quality might result in lost sales/contracts/etc., but if the company is good enough at spinning, burying, and misdirecting (i.e. marketing), it can make massive amounts of money despite serious quality problems.

But even this is missing the point - quality is not any sort of incentive here. The "customers" are government officials who don't have much at stake as far as quality goes. No politician is going to lose sleep because the private prison is not up to snuff. Not when lobby money is such a powerful sedative**. The customers want to lock people up and not think about it any more - it's easy, and for the most part voters are fine with that. A more sophisticated politician might be concerned about rehabilitation programs that will help reduce crime overall (less recidivism), but again, slick marketing can be much more cost-effective for both the politician and the prison company.

But don't government-run prisons have many of the same quality issues? The answer is yes, but the key word to remember here is Incentive. The government-run prison's incentive, as a whole, is to maintain security and take steps that will help reduce future crime. The private prison's incentive is to make money. There will certainly be much overlap - the private prison needs to maintain security and take steps that will help reduce future crime in order to make money, but if it can get away with not doing those things, it will, because they are no longer ends - they are simply means.

That's my main problem with the free market in general: almost everything we would consider important (health, quality, security, art) becomes a means to the one end of making money. And those means are out the window as soon as a cheaper replacement can be found (and sold/buried/glossed over). When it comes to prison, that is an unacceptable risk to take.

--YY

* Regarding prison workers' salaries: "REALITY: CCA offers competitive salaries to attract and retain qualified employees." Competitive, but not more than they would get as employees of a government-run prison.

** CCA's website claims that they do not lobby for stricter sentencing, but you can bet that they lobby quite heavily for privatizing prisons.

2 comments:

yitz.. said...

umm wouldn't it NOT be in the interest of the private prisons to prevent future crime? then they would ensure future business ..

basically, they would ultimately lose money if they were good @ rehabilitating prisoners.

YodaYid said...

The industry's argument is that since their clients (the government/politicians) want to rehabilitate prisoners, their business model requires that they do. That is, since the client has an incentive to rehabilitate prisoners, the market will favor prisons that provide this. I find that this sort of free market logic makes much more sense in theory ;-)