This past summer, the Justice Department decided to phase out its use of private prisons. I remember how happy this made me. I had spent my entire senior year in AP United States Government and Politics arguing for just that. The culminating project in that class was an oral argument and a thesis, and we were encouraged to pick topics we truly cared about. For me, the private prison industry was the obvious choice, and that was at a time when I really knew quite little. As my research of the topic continued, I only became more impassioned.
The four major purposes of prisons, theoretically, are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. With the privatization of prisons, a conflict of interest arises. Private prisons are businesses, and they rely on incapacitation for profit. To the companies that run private prisons, like CoreCivic, high rates of recidivism are a dream. If these corporations allowed prisons to rehabilitate and deter people from crime, as they are supposed to, they would fail. What corporations would seriously work to keep people out of prisons if their high numbers of incapacitation directly corresponded to high profits? The act of making prisoners a medium for profit has dehumanized them, and has justified the adoption of a prison philosophy that does not work.
Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates recognized this in her memorandum. She stated that “[private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save on costs; and … they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” So, with the recent replacement of this memorandum with one by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that showed support for the use of private prisons, I was disheartened, but not surprised. This came with a pledge to be more tough on crime, specifically with regard to drug and immigration laws. This pledge comes at a time when crime rates are nearing historic lows and our federal prison populations are dropping. But now, with the new administration’s agenda, it seems as though we’re going to undo all of the progress we’ve made over the last eight years.
If the goal is to reduce crime rates, this will not be accomplished by the prisons we currently have in place. Our prisons are flawed. They have been turned into a business that profits off of the imprisoned. Far too many people are being thrown into a system that benefits entirely from their misfortune. This system is also prejudiced and treats some more harshly than others. People are being placed into “correctional facilities” that make very little effort to correct them, or to even help them reenter the society from which they were so abruptly and unfairly taken. The effects of such tragedy extend far beyond the individual, as they permeate families, schools, and communities. The private sector of our prison system perpetuates injustice. Our justice system perpetuates injustice, and this unquestionably needs to be changed. While, legislatively, progress may be limited, the least we can do is keep this in mind.