What are some pros and cons for privatizing a state’s prison system?



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    Privatization of prisons is a controversial topic. The usual argument advanced in its favor is that of cost: with a growing prison population and decreased public funds in almost every U.S. state, a private or semi-private prison run by a for-profit company can manage the prison population more efficiently, as well as sparing the public the cost of constructing more prisons or administering those that already exist. The cost-savings argument is not universally accepted, however. Some question the underlying assumption of whether a business can really manage a prison more efficiently than a state agency. Others find fault with numbers often produced in the debate, arguing that the unique conditions in prisons from state to state make generalizations impossible or meaningless. Then there is the societal argument about whether people will really feel safe entrusting the function of prison administration, which has traditionally been a core government function, to private industries. There is also the question about how and to what extent the government must supervise and police the private administration of prisons, since penal institutions are an arm of the legal system and must be run according to strict rules. Who will make sure that privatized prisons follow these rules, and how much will that monitoring cost? Privatizing prisons is somewhat like privatizing military forces, an experiment that has been given extensive trial in Iraq with firms such as Blackwater. Yes, there are definite advantages to outsourcing traditionally public functions to private industries, but there is often a whole new set of issues that arises once this is done, and the consequences of privatization may be unintended. Nevertheless, as the debate continues, some states have semi-privatized their prison systems; since 2000 the percentage of state and federal inmates in private prisons has held steady at about 6.5%.

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