For Americans who do not work in the field of law or criminal justice, and are law-abiding in their lives, Lady Justice is truly blind and who goes to jail (or how many) is of no real concern. But, there is a small segment of the business world that has an investment in criminal behavior and the prison sentences that result.
Privately owned prisons are built as much for profit as they are for warehousing lawbreakers.
One ostensible reason why state and federal corrections programs have been opened to privatization is that it can save taxpayers the money it costs the state or federal government to detain criminals, but there is no research to support such findings.
It’s true the data has shifted as privatization becomes more prevalent, and different jurisdictions have different corrections needs, but it is clear that lucrative contracting opportunities present a quantifiable monetary incentive for the private corrections industry.
Corrections Corporation of American (CCA) is the biggest private corrections business in the United States. It operates 60 facilities (40 of which it owns) in 19 states and the District of Columbia, employs more than 17,000 corrections officers and administrators, and safeguards more than 75,000 inmates. Compared to the combined total number of inmates in the U.S., which topped 1.6 million at the end of 2009, this is not a staggering figure.
The numbers on the balance sheet, however, are another matter. CCA is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under CXW, posted $427 million in revenue in the last fiscal quarter and has been recommended as a good buy by Wall Street tipsters for the last year.
In other words, prison is good business and even an unsophisticated day-trader can turn a profit by owning a piece of the U.S. corrections system. Perhaps more importantly, it also indicates a growth industry: people seeking positions as a corrections officer or other type of criminal justice professional will see an increase in opportunities if privatization continues to expand.
Some critics warn, though, that what is good for business may not be so good for prisoners. Concerns range from private prisons being able to effectively provide medical care, control potentially violent prison unrest and prevent escape. There have also been past suspicions regarding financial motives for the states that choose to outsource their corrections work.
But, statistics and research go both ways and it would be naïve to think that political gamesmanship does not influence the debate. In lieu of a political or statistical answer, a better place to positively influence the private prison system is to ensure the proper education of future corrections officers and criminal justice professionals.