A plea for a common sense approach to prison privatization

A new bill introduced this week is poised to end the “business as usual” approach that’s become so popular with prison administrations of late of packing our prisons while lining the pockets of private entities. It comes as little surprised that the legislator behind it is Bernie Sanders, currently a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Partisan politics aside (difficult to do in an environment of eternal campaigning), the introduction highlights the importance of looking beyond bandaid-style policy changes, to dealing with some of the deeper—albeit admittedly more complicated—systemic issues guiding our current prison system. It would seek to eliminate private interests from the system, reduce corruption, and emphasize rehabilitation.

Some readers might be asking, what is fundamentally wrong with allowing privatization in our prison system? Well the trouble begins with the very premise guiding privatization: the profit motive. When we take any service out of the public sphere and move it into the private, we make that service into a commodity. And for anyone selling a commodity, the guiding motive is to increase profit (I’ll leave aside discussions of the benevolent capitalist here, because it’s just not one that applies to these companies!). So if we look at the service of operating a prison, what is the number one, indeed only, way to increase profits? Increasing the number of prisoners.

These companies simply do not benefit from a decrease in the prison population, the reduction of mandatory minimums, or alternative sentencing methods. It runs counter to their mandate, and the interests of their shareholders. So while some might be tempted to write off Sanders simply because they disagree with his politics on other issues—don’t. Because at the end of the day, what he’s saying here is common sense. It is these companies’ interests to see crime rates increase, to see more families split apart by unfair sentencing practices, to impede rehabilitation efforts and increase recidivism.