Judge, Jury and CEO: The Privatisation of Justice


The Unites States of America has a prison population of over 2 million people. 1 in 110 adult Americans are in prison, and 1 in 38 are under some form of correctional supervision. The USA has the largest prison population in the world, as well as the largest per capita. The USA was one of the first countries to implement private prisons – an idea now spreading throughout the world. How are private prisons in the USA affecting the justice system and human rights? 

Prison population in countries with over 100,000 prisoners (Data sourced from World Prison Brief) 

The Development of Private Prisons 

Why does the USA have so many prisoners? Americans make up 4% of the world population, but manage to make up 22% of the world’s prison population. The graph below shows a natural increase in prison population over time, between 1925 and the 1980s. This natural growth is due to the rise in population – as there are more people, and so there is a proportionately larger number of prisoners. However, this cannot be purely the reason for America’s large number of prisoners, as India, which has a population over four times the size of the United States, has only a quarter of its prison population. Once again, turning to the graph below, we see a huge spike in the 1980s. The first, modern private prison corporation – Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic) – took over its first facility in Tennessee, in 1984. However, it would be incorrect to attribute the blame to private prisons, as this was also the time when the war on drugs meant there was a crackdown on drug use, and therefore this led to many more people being incarcerated. Due to lobbying, there was an increase in stricter sentencing laws, leading to a rise in the duration a prisoner would remain behind bars. In fact, these changes led to larger prison populations, which actually created the demand for more prisons, and therefore made possible the rise in private prisons. 

A graph to show the increase in US prison population (Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners Series via The Sentencing Project)

The Impact of Private Prisons on Justice 

In the year 2000, prison corporations spent $350,000 in order to lobby, and this figure rapidly rose to over $1.5 million in 2016. This is pocket change to prison companies, as the industry is worth $5 billion a year and still rising. But what are they lobbying for? In essence, longer and harsher sentences for a wider variety of crimes. These include laws such as the Three Strikes Laws, and the 2006 Jessica’s Law, as well as initiatives such as Truth in Sentencing. Truth in Sentencing tries to decrease parole and early release. The Three Strikes Law states that there must be a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of a violent felony with two previous convictions, no matter how serious the previous convictions were. Three Strike Laws have been implemented in 28 states, the first being Washington in 1993. Between 1992 and 2003, there was an 80% increase in people receiving a life sentence. Jessica’s Law, now present in 42 states, demands lewd or lascivious molestation on a person under the age of 12, to be a life felony and warrant a mandatory 25 years in prison, as well as lifelong probation and electronic monitoring. Whilst harsher sentencing for sex offenders and violent criminals is by no means an injustice, the very people who profit from those who are in prison, should not be able to dictate and influence legal proceedings. While murder rates in the US are at their lowest since 1960, and violent crime victimisation has decreased by almost 75% since 1993, the amount of people arrested continues to rise every year. While prison companies are legally allowed to lobby, there have been instances where they have broken the law, to maximise profit. In 2008, the ‘Cash for Kids’ scandal involved two federal judges being paid to send 2,000 juveniles to prison for minor crimes, such as stealing DVDs from Walmart, trespassing in abandoned buildings and even insulting a principal on Myspace. The judges were paid $2.8 million over 5 years by Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp. 

Incarceration Rate amongst Large Countries (Data sourced from World Prison Brief) 

The Impact of Private Prisons on Human Rights 

The US Federal government pays private prisons $23,000 per inmate, every year. That is almost 50% more than the minimum wage. Such prisons make money off crime, and the resulting punishment. Some may question what the difference between them and the police is? They both earn their living from locking prisoners behind bars. However, the police (and other law enforcement agencies) are preventing crime, whereas private prisons do not. Over half the prisoners in a survey of over 400,000 prisoners, over 30 states, were rearrested only a year after release. After three years, two thirds were rearrested, and after five years, over three quarters were incarcerated once more, a total of around 301,000 prisoners. While this is not the fault of private prisons, it has been shown that private prisons make less effort than state-run prisons. After all, their business model relies on people being sent to prison. However, when offered a 1% bonus for reducing recidivism rates, 40 prisons in Philadelphia had their rates fall by over 16%. Not only are shareholders profiting off the incarceration of prisoners, they are violating their human rights. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners guarantees certain standards for prisoners, including accommodation, health and nutrition. However, in private prisons, these are often not provided. This is partly due to staffing – private prison employees are paid $5,000 less a than state-run prison employees, and receive 58 hours less training on average. There are cases of prisons going months without critical staff such as doctors. Inadequate staffing has led to 28% more inmate-on-inmate violence, 100% more inmate-on-staff violence and a significant increase in weaponry found inside prisons.  

Private prisons are having a significant impact on justice and human rights in the United States. As they spread throughout the world, should we be concerned as to what effect they may have on justice systems throughout the world? The answer is, no. The problem is not privatisation but mismanagement. The push towards harsher sentencing is not purely limited to private prison companies, and human rights violations are not unique to them either. Private prisons are not inherently wrong, but we should be mindful as to who runs them, and how we fund their upkeep.


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