The U.S. has the unfortunate reputation of the highest incarceration rate worldwide. The U.S.. locks up more people per capita than any other nation every year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. As of November 2018, the International Centre for Prison Studies reported that 2.1 million Americans were incarcerated. On average, state prisons in Georgia have a max capacity of 35,117. On a given day in the calendar year of 2018, state prisons were utilizing 108.5 percent of their capacity by holding 38,103 prisoners. Within the same calendar year, county prisons in Georgia were utilizing 96.3 percent of their capacity and private prisons were utilizing 97.7 percent of their capacity.
Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 121,718 people in 2017, representing 8.2 percent of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 39 percent.
Private prisons are a relatively new thing. They first came about in the 1980s as an aftermath of Reagan’s War on Drugs. Due to harsher sentencings and rates of incarceration, the nation’s existing prison system couldn’t house the influx of prisoners. So, corporations quickly saw the need for more prisons and opened privatized, for-profit ones. From 1984, when the first private prison was opened in Tennesse, to 1990, 66 private prisons were established nationwide, a number which has only grown. Private prisons’ inmate capacity has increased at a disproportionate rate with a 1600 percent increase in their populations from 1990 to 2005, according to the Justice Policy Institute.
The appeal of private prisons is their claim to save the government money. However, how they manage this budget-friendly mass incarceration, is cause for concern. Privately owned prisons are notoriously under-staffed, and their employees are trained less than those in government run facilities. The Bureau of Prisons tasks a monitor to ensure that private prisons are complying with federal standards. However, a 2016 report from the Justice Department showed that those monitors regularly failed to ensure that inmates in private prisons were receiving medical care, according to the Justice Policy Institute. The same report also found that private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults, as well as twice as many illicit weapons than comparable federal facilities, according to the Justice Policy Institute.
So, if private prisons appeal to the federal government with their claim to supposedly save money, a fact which a study from the University of Arizona found to be false, at what cost is our country willing to save a few bucks? At the expense of the marginalized and under-represented?
Our judiciary system is still one which operates under systematic racism which seeks out minorities, punishes and sentences harshly for non-violent drug crime and profits off of these incarcerated men and women. According to the Washington Post, “at the federal level, 47.5 percent of prisoners (81,900) were serving a sentence of any length at the end of September 2016 after being convicted of a drug offense as their most serious crime.” However, “more than 99 percent of federal drug offenders are sentenced for trafficking,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This seems absurd considering that recreational marijuana is now legal in eleven states throughout the U.S.
However, all of the blame for the U.S.’ mass incarceration issue cannot be put on private prisons in totality. The rules and regulations which private prisons operate under, the authority which they must answer to and the authority which often lets them get away with cutting corners, is the real issue here. The authority of the U.S. prison system has created a culture that makes inmates less than human. Trading cards to be bought and sold between private, state or county prisons, the offense of those locked up is often nuanced and disregarded. The monetary value and social power of having control through imprisonment is one which is uninterrupted. Reform is desperately needed in our prison systems. As a nation, we would benefit from reevaluation of how non-violent, drug-related crimes are punished or how prisoners could be rehabilitated in ways other than long-stay sentencing.