Ethical Dilemma of Prison Privatization

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Ethical Dilemma of Prison Privatization


Prison overcrowding has become one of the most burdensome problems for the United States. For the past two decades, the number of adult offenders who get locked up in jail has doubled. The United States is one of the countries with the highest number of prisoners in the world (Selman & Leighton, 2010). Due to the ever-increasing number of prisoners, the government has been contracting private firms to offer prison services for government at a fee. The private prisons are facilities owned by private firms who have gotten into a contract with the government to offer space which acts as prisons. However, the issue of private prisons has become controversial for the last few years. Arguments have been on the ethical, economic and efficiency of private prisons as compared with the public prisons. While the proponents of the private prisons argue that it helps save costs for the government while at the same time enhancing efficiency, the critics hold the view that such an act raises ethical issues. Despite the claim that private prisons help save costs, a few related studies have shown that there is no significant cost difference between the private and public prisons and that this act of locking offenders in private prisons creates unethical business practice while at the same time infringing the rights of many prisoners.

Statement of the Problem

America prison population has rapidly increased over the last few decades, with reports indicating that the percentage increase in the prison population is even higher than the population growth. The total number of state and local prisoners in the United States rose from 501, 886 to 2,228,400 between 1980 to 2012, representing 344% increase compared to the 38% increase in the population (Duwe & Clark, 2013). This number prompted the government to hire private firms to provide prison services at a fee which is paid per head and depending on how long a person remains inside the bar. The rationale for prisons for profits is that the more the number of people in jail, the higher the profits. Claims have been raised that most private prisons are small in size and in poor conditions because the profit motive makes it difficult for the owners to improve the conditions. This has raised ethical issues in the way prisoners are handled amid reports that there is increased violations of their rights while under the bars. Many studies have previously focused on studying the ever-increasing number of prisoners due to the drug offense. Very little studies have been done on the ethical dilemma in private prisons hence a gap exists which this research seeks to fulfil.

Review of Literature History of Private Prisons in the United States

Private prisons and jails have a long history in the United States, dating back to 1852. According to King (2012), San Quentin was the first prison in the United States, long before, it was later owned by the state. The privatization of the prisons became widespread with main services but the overall management of prisons was still under state control. In the early 1980s, the Corrections Corporation of America came up with the idea of running prisons for a profit. Due to the intensive wars on the drug policies, public prisons got overwhelmed with prisoners calling for the need to find an alternative facility. To help reduce the burden on the state prisons, privately owned prisons were created in 1983 led by the CCA. Earlier in the 1800s, private prisons were unheard of, practically none existed by then in the United States (King, 2012). Later after the CCA led in the first private prison, many others followed. What typically led to call for private prisons was the overcrowding of the prisons that resulted during the declared war on drugs. Private businesses saw an opportunity for profits and stepped in to provide a solution. This marked the beginning of many private prisons that have since become rampant in the United States of America.

Private Prisons and Incarceration

One of the most criticized aspects of private prisons is the mass incarceration of the citizens. Since private prisons are run for profit motives, the more prisoners a company holds, the more the profit. The argument is that most owners of the private prisons will want to have more people arrested so that they get more profit. Reports indicate that over the last two decades, the rate of incarceration has doubled, with a percentage higher than even the population growth rate (Pollock, 2014). Despite the ever-growing rate of incarceration, the method has proven to be ineffective in changing the behavior of offenders who continue to engage in crime even after serving their jail terms. According to Pollock (2014), most people who become incarcerated, especially non-violent drug offenders tend to show no positive behavior change even after being incarcerated showing that jailing has become ineffective. The aim of any form of preventing law-breaking should be to change the behavior of the individuals so that they avoid crime after the jail term. However, most prisons have failed to achieve this.

Private prisons have been blamed for the ineffectiveness of the jailing process. Instead of focusing on rehabilitating the offenders while they are in prison, the private prisons see no incentive to lead a positive behavior change (Clear, Reisig & Cole, 2018). The argument is that if they rehabilitate offenders, the number of the people locked up in prison will be reduced thus reducing their profits. This has been considered as an unethical business process of aiming to make profits from people at the expense of their rights. The more people that are arrested, the higher the profits for the privately owned prisons. It basically means that private prison owners can always wish that more people commit a crime so that they are jailed. Criminality and punishment of the lawbreakers is a sole responsibility of the government.By selling the rights of citizens to private businesses who are profit-oriented seems to be a violation of the rights of individuals. While the government goal of incarceration is to reduce the rate of crime and offenders in the country, privatization of prisons can cause a conflict of interest and compromise the overall objective of reducing crime (Clear, Reisig & Cole, 2018). Conflict of interest arises when the private prison owners get driven by profit motives rather than solving the community issue of minimizing crimes. Knowing that rehabilitating prisoners will make them change behavior and avoid crime, there will be no incentive to do this for fear of loss of business. As a result, the rate of incarceration has continued to be high, with reported cases of repeated crime by offenders after being released from jail.

Quality of Confinement

Questions have been raised about the quality of the private prisons as compared with the public ones. In a study to make the quality comparison of the two, various findings have been made. The findings have shown that the facility capacity for the private prisons is very compacted. The rooms are small, containing so many people. Because the motive for constructing a private prison had been for profits, many business owners tend to minimize on space and maximize the capacity so that the profit can be increased (Goodstein & MacKenzie, 2013). The debate has been on the issue of confining a large number of people in a small room just for profit reasons. They tend to focus less on the profit rather than the quality of the facility in which people are locked up. The issue of ethics emerges when the rights of people are being violated for the sake of profits. Prisoners also have their own rights as any other citizens. They deserve better treatment even while they are behind the bars. When the value of profit tends to outdo human value then the morals of the society are at stake.

According to Cole, Smith, and DeJong (2018), most private prisons tend to have more than the recommended occupancy for a facility. The owners of the private jails do this to maximize profit, because the larger the number of inmates the higher the profits. With little focus on renovation of the facilities, many private jails are in worse conditions. Further studies have also shown that nurturing behavior change in a congested prison is difficult (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2018). When the prison capacity is more than the required number, certain behaviors tend to emerge, which instead hinder positive behavior development. While this might not seem good for the society in general who seek to have their members develop positive behavior change, the private prison owners see it as a business opportunity to boost their profits. People leaving jail without having undergone positive behavior change are more likely to engage in repeat crime which takes them back to jail. It is unethical to do business with the lives of people who can otherwise be changed for a better future. Despite the results of some findings indicating that private prisons can help save costs for the government, other studies have found controversy in this. According to the research by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there is no significant difference in costs between the private and public prisons (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2018).

Profits for People

The prison industrial complex has a set of bureaucratic, political and economic interests which enhance the spending on jails regardless of the needs has led to a faster development of prison facilities in the United States (Mason, 2013). The huge amount of $35 billion spent annually on correctional facilities is not seen as a burden to the taxpayer but rather as a profitable enterprise. Currently, over 100,000 individuals are held in the private jails (Mason, 2013). The ever-expanding rate of private prisons is a clear demonstration of the troublesome consequences that impact the society as a whole. While the current controversy surrounds the area of harsher sentencing that has led to increased incarceration, but scholars fail to discuss the incentive behind this. The motives for which the private prisons are set is for profit maximization (Mason, 2013). This could be at least a motive behind the strict sentencing laws majorly for the minor offenses so that many people can be convicted. The political officials and private prisons corporations have set their interests by keeping the rate of incarceration as high as possible through harsher sentencing just to make money and more profit. Since the state gets into a contract with private prisons on the basis of cost efficiency, the state goes ahead to invest in the private prisons to save money.

A mutual agreement to invest in private prisons plays a major role in determining the rationale behind the decision making. The dilemma is that private prisons owners demand the inflation of the prisons by increasing the rates of incarceration so that they can remain striving in business. In their annual report, Correctional Corporation of America which is one of the leading private correctional corporations indicated that their growth is highly dependent on many variables, including the sentencing routines and jurisdiction (Doty & Wheatley, 2013). Any changes made to the law concerning drugs and illegal immigration could impact the number of arrests and conviction which could, in turn, affect their profitability. These reports show that the motive behind the private prisons corporations getting into the contract is for profit maximization. The view that growth of prisoners facilitates the growth in revenue then it is logical that these corporations will focus on achieving an economically enough number of arrests as well as rearrests if they are to maximize their profits (Doty & Wheatley, 2013).

The major function of the prison facilities should be to rehabilitate the inmates with the aim of making them better and returning them to the community as good people who will not return to the prisons in future (Crewe, Liebling & Hulley, 2011). However, little attention is being paid to the need for rehabilitation as most funds get channeled into prison facilities. Private prisons require a fixed sum of money for every inmate in a day. This fee per day for each inmate is known as per diem. Undoubtedly, the revenue and profit get maximized when the prisons are at their full capacity. The IPO, which is an American private security company also noted that a decrease in the prison capacity could decrease the revenue as well as profitability (Crewe, Liebling & Hulley, 2011). With this profitability motive, prisoners are viewed as customers whose presence is required for the business to continue being in operation. As in the ordinary business model, the more the customers, the higher the revenue. This same logic applies to private prisons.

The average actual occupancy for most of the private prisons is 80%. However, the occupancy rates in some areas have gone up to 100% full (Crewe, Liebling & Hulley, 2011). In most cases, private prisons strive to have the facilities get near to full capacity because this would mean more profits. The increase in the occupancy rates would mean reduced operating cost per inmate when applying economies of scale. Therefore, other than just adding more revenue to the private prisons, more inmates also help lower the cost per head.

Gaps in the Literature

Due to the increase in more funds directed to prison services, fewer resources have been channeled to the rehabilitation programs. While studies have shown that incarceration is ineffective in achieving positive behavior change among individuals, no detailed research has been done on the impact of reduced resources on the rehabilitation programs. The studies that examine the effects of decreased investment in rehabilitation especially in the private facilities are limited and the results are always contradictory. More studies need to be done in this area.

Proposal Problem

Over the last few years, the rate of incarceration in the United States has been on the rise. This has been attributed to the strict laws especially on drugs as well as harsh sentencing. Reports indicate that the rate of incarceration in the United States has grown at a rate of 344%, a rate that is even higher than the population growth rate (Fulcher, 2011). While the focus has been to impose tough measures against lawbreakers, very little attention has been paid to finding lasting attention to the issue. More people continue to get imprisoned in the private prisons through which they get out without being rehabilitated and rearrests occur for repeat crime. Private prisons main motives are to maximize profits with little incentives to rehabilitate the inmates because the more the number of people in jail, the higher the profits. They also advocate for strict laws on minor offenses and harsh sentencing leading to more incarcerations because that is how they earn profits (Sigler, 2010). The main dilemma is that instead of focusing on correcting the lawbreakers to develop a positive behavior change, they are used as customers to make more profits, with the aim of having more arrests. Instead of subjecting the offenders to private prisons which only use them for profit-making objectives, policies should be developed to help these people to have positive behavior changes before being taken back to the community as a changed person.

Policy Proposal

The major way in which the problem of the private prisons using inmates for profit motives can be solved by a combination of two major ways. First, justice is not for sale to people who make billions of dollars using private prisons. A law should be passed that bans the use and existence of the private prisons. This law should be implemented together with the rehabilitation programs where the excess resources used to pay private prison owners can be used to finance rehabilitation programs for criminals with minor offenses such as the use of the drugs.

Legislation to Outlaw Private Prisons

A comprehensive bill should be introduced that aims at banning the use of for-profit prisons, jails as well as detention centers for the immigrants. The use of private prisons has proven to be ineffective both in helping develop positive behavior change among the inmates as well as in terms of costs. People who spend time behind bars say how difficult it is to properly convey what it means to have someone else in full control of your movements. When this control is combined with profits, it can be very devastating. The absurdity of the private prisons whose roles should be to rehabilitate have now turned into economic motivations without considering their social missions.

Ending private prisons would require a significant reduction in the mass incarceration that has been witnessed in the United States over the last few decades. Lawmakers should push for the end to private prisons who use justice for their economic benefits. A report by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics in the year 2013, there were a total of 31,900 federal prisoners and 92,000 state prisoners who were under the control of the private prisons (Friedman & Parent, 2013). Based on these large numbers, passing a law that will ban the use of private prisons will mean a significant reduction of 124,000 prison beds. Elimination of the for-profits prisons and banning any option for privatization of the prisons should motivate the lawmakers to make their priorities right to help reduce the mass incarceration while at the same time minimizing the demand for the new beds. The Justice is not for Sale Act should include the complete elimination of the private sectors into any justice and correctional system so that such responsibility becomes entirely under the government. Also, the ban on the private prisons should have an effect on the racist implications in which people are locked up for profit basis. The blacks have disproportionately been incarcerated in all the justice system levels as well as the detention of the immigrants. In their push to end private prisons and reduce mass incarceration, the lawmakers need to take into account the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice system.

In order to secure its business, private prison industry have even taken an active role in influencing the lawmakers to make legislation that will protect their interests. An example is the industrys influence by participating in the drafting of Arizonas SB 1070 which legalized racial profiling. The legislators should stand with the people and help address this social problem. They must make legislation that is aimed at benefiting the public rather than just a few individuals. The lawmakers should pass a law that will completely eliminate private prisons because the system has proved ineffective and unethical.

Rehabilitation Program

Since the motives of the private prisons are to make profits, there is always fewer incentives to rehabilitate the inmates. Studies have shown that private prisons are ineffective in developing a positive behavior among the inmates. Most people get rearrested after they are released from the prisons, meaning that private prisons play no role in modeling the behavior. Because their profit depend on the number of prisoners/occupancy, the more rearrests they do the more the profit. The government spends billions of dollars annually in the private prisons leaving no resources to finance rehabilitation programs. After passing the legislation to ban the use of private prisons, a lot of the funds currently paid to these for-profits prisons can be invested in the rehabilitation centers where people with minor offenses such as drug abuse can be taken. Most of the people being locked up in the private prisons in general are criminals of minor offenses such as non-violent drug users as stated above who only require rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

Rehabilitation has been useful and more effective in developing positive behavior change than incarceration. When more resources are diverted away from the for-profit prisons and channeled towards rehabilitation programs, more people will reform and get back to the community as a changed person. The aim of any criminal justice system and correctional facilities should be to enhance positive behavior change among the inmates and return them to the community as a reformed person. The use of rehabilitation centers as compared to the private prisons can be useful as it provides guidance and counselling to the victims while at the same time try to get the root cause of the problem. Guidance and counseling can help the victims to reform and get back to their lives as a better and more productive member of society.

Implementation Plans

The first step that the legislatures can do is to eliminate private prison lobbying and campaign contributions. This will reduce their influence on the political class who then make legislation in their favor. Carrying a mass campaign to inform people of the need for legislation to outlaw private prisons can be a useful starting point for implementation. Let everyone understand why this system is not right for the justice system of the country and lobby other lawmakers to support the idea. Mass campaign and lobbying will help attract more support for the bill thus making it easy to pass it into a law.

Implementation Steps

The first step to implementation of the legislation is to identify the need for the new law. All the stakeholders must be made aware of the need for the law. There should be proper recommendations and explanations on why the current law is ineffective and why a change of that particular law is necessary. The lawmakers must convince other members and stakeholders that there is a problem with the current law on private prisons and then initiate the need to outlaw it. The next step should be to obtain the support of all the stakeholders. Once the law has been drafted, it is important to communicate with those who are expected to carry out the policy. Meetings and conferences should be held to discuss the new legislation with all the stakeholders so that their support is obtained. Without the support of the majority of the stakeholders, it will be difficult to have an efficient implementation of the policy or the new law. In these meetings, there will be discussions on the need for the new legislation, the impacts it will have on the various stakeholders as well as allowing the stakeholders to address their concerns. After obtaining the support of all the stakeholders, it is appropriate to communicate with all people involved. This can include the law enforcement agencies, various ministries as well as the involvement of the judicial sector officials. During the implementation process, the implementing team must at every stage revise and update the policy. Continuous review is essential in ensuring that the implementation process is moving towards the right direction.

The rehabilitation program, on the other hand, requires a policy development and implementation which will ensure that the program works effectively. A clear policy statement should be made regarding the allocation of a certain amount of funds towards the construction of the rehabilitation facilities as well as the hiring of the staff. First, it is important to communicate the need for rehabilitation centers to various stakeholders so that they provide the necessary support. This needs to be followed by a thorough campaign to create awareness for the need to implement the program. Without support from the stakeholders, an implementation might not be effective. The lawmakers should lead in lobbying the government to provide resources for the construction of the rehabilitation centers. The victims of non-violent drug offenders and other offenders of minor crimes should all be taken to rehabilitation centers where they undergo therapy treatment to develop positive behavior change. There should be a coordination between the law enforcement agencies and the rehabilitation centers so that all people arrested for minor crimes are all taken to the rehabilitation centers for counseling and therapy.

Evaluation of the Policy

It is appropriate to carry out an evaluation of the policy and the rehabilitation program to assess whether there are any positive results. After the ban on the private prisons and the implementation of the rehabilitation programs, there should be an evaluation of the whole process to identify areas which require adjustment. Normally, evaluation becomes the last step in the implementation of a new legislation, policy or a program. While doing an evaluation, various areas are covered which can include assessing whether the problem was correctly identified, if there were any important aspects that were overlooked, whether the policy has any positive impacts and if there are any needs for modification of part or the whole process.

The evaluation, in this case, can involve determining the change in the number of incarceration over some period of time. The banning of the private prisons is expected to reduce the number of incarcerated in the country. If, after a period of time there is no significant change in the number of prisoners incarcerated, a modification of the policy needs to be done and identify areas where there was an error. A failure in the intended effect is usually due to either theory or program. A theory failure occurs when the policy was appropriately implemented but failed to meet the intended impact. This can occur for example when the banning of the private prisons fail to yield any positive impact on the number of incarcerated. A failure in the program can occur when the implementation of the rehabilitation was not done as planned thus resulting in no positive impacts.

There are two methods that can be used to conduct an evaluation. The first method is the formative evaluation. If there were adequate monitoring processes in place, it should be relatively easy to detect if the policy, program or new legislation has been appropriately implemented. This method of evaluation analyzes and documents how the policy or program was implemented while at the same time having the objective of making further improvements and modifications. The second method of evaluation is the summative evaluation which involves full analysis after the program or the policy is fully implemented.

While evaluating the policy, legislation or programs on the issue of private prisons, certain steps need to be followed. The first step to start with is to define the stakeholders who are involved in the implementation of the program. These are the people who will be able to identify areas which require improvement. The next step is to have the goal of the program or policy in mind. The goal is then compared with the outcome to identify if there is any positive outcome. This can be done by examining any change in the incarceration rates and reduction in the rearrests after one leaves rehabilitation center. A third step is to focus on the design of evaluation. The design can either be in the form of activities or the output. If the output which is a reduction in the number of incarcerations and repeat arrests is positive then the policy was effective. However, any negative output from what was expected means the process needs modification.


Many kinds of literature have shown privatization of prisons is unethical and ineffective in helping develop a positive behavior change in the community. Justice is not for sale and it is unethical and of no moral values to use the prisoners as customers who their large numbers lead to higher profitability. These for-profit prisons tend to enhance mass incarceration that has been currently witnessed in the United States. A facility which should focus on rehabilitating and reforming the inmates gets driven by profit motives at the expense of the rights of people. Lawmakers should pass a legislation aimed at banning any use of private prisons in the United States. This legislation when combined with a rehabilitation program can yield positive results amongst offenders. We need to help lawbreakers change their behaviors and return to the community a good people rather than using them as profit-making objects at the expense of their rights.


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Ethical Dilemma Of Prison Privatization. (2019, May 15). Retrieved July 21, 2024 , from

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