Today, Arizona is expected to sign a contract awarding a private prison company 1,000 beds. While the state acknowledges there are currently 2,000 empty beds in public prisons, they predict that the total prison population will increase by 600 beds in four years, creating a need for these additional private prisons to house medium security prisoners. However, the state’s own records show that the number of prisoners in Arizona has decreased by 296 prisoners in the 2011 fiscal year.
Privatizing prisons is a growing trend across the country. Thirty states currently house 158 private prison facilities, including ten in Arizona that house about 16 percent of its prison population. New Hampshire may soon become the first state to privatize its entire population of prisoners. While states take up these measures in an attempt to save money, studies show that private prisons do not reduce costs. In 2010, for example, the daily price of housing an inmate in a medium security public prison was $48.42 compared to $53.02 in a private prison – a 10% increase. States and federal governments annually spend $70 billion of taxpayer money on corrections. If efforts to privatize succeed, the costs will skyrocket as housing prisoners becomes more expensive and the number of people imprisoned grows.
Privatizing prisons also adds to the United States’ epidemic of mass incarceration. The ultimate goal of private prison companies is to increase revenue. These companies actively lobby for policies that maintain and increase incarceration. As the Justice Policy Institute found “despite well documented concerns, private prison companies continue to promote policies that put money in their pockets and people behind bars.”
Additionally, living conditions in private prisons are worse. Because private companies aim to minimize costs, cuts to services and treatments are common. Attempts to keep inmates longer may involve actions that would prevent people from getting out onto parole in a timely manner. For example, if a prisoner needs to complete a reintegration program before leaving prison, the private prison many not provide the program.
The Department of Justice study shows that privatizing prisons to save costs is misguided and economically flawed. The best way to reduce prison costs is for governments to shrink the number of people incarcerated. Reforms like reducing pre-trial detention, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and providing alternatives to prison have proven effective in many states, without affecting public safety. To eliminate the heavy social and fiscal costs of incarceration, we must reduce our country’s dependency on incarceration; simply throwing money at private companies to mismanage our prisons and the Americans in them is not the answer.