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Tough Love: Private prison system doesn't benefit US

Among the things people can own and earn money from, some more promising items include Bed Bath and Beyond, stocks and prisons. According to MarketWatch, Bed Bath and Beyond stock rose about 17 percent last week. In contrast, McDonald’s stock rose only 0.17 percent. It appears that towels are growing increasingly more economically valuable than burgers, even though burgers are obviously tastier.

But if stocks (and towels) aren’t your thing, then maybe prisons are! Prisons are big stuff in the United States. Although the U.S. population is only about 5 percent of the world’s population, its prison population is already more than 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

And, furthermore, some 130,000 of these American prisoners are currently held by for-profit companies. Those are referred to as private prisons. Private prisons enter contracts with the government to house prisoners, and, in return, the government pays the owners of those private prisons a certain amount of money for each prisoner held for a specific amount of time. The number of private prisons only continues to grow quickly.

Private prisons earn a shockingly large amount of money. In 2010 alone, the two largest private prison companies in the U.S. brought in a collective $3 billion of profit just for keeping criminals locked up. Overall, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which I never knew existed) pays out $5.1 billion per year to private prisons, but with questionable results, as I shall explain later.

Private prisons also spend countless millions on lobbying to convince congressmen to continue putting more and more people in private prisons. In fact, in the past decade, the three largest private prison networks spent a collective $45 million in campaign contributions on the state and federal level to convince legislators of the bounteous merits of private prisons — namely even larger contributions.

As just one example, 30 of 36 Arizona legislators who co-sponsored a new immigration law that would put more illegal immigrants in detention prisons received campaign contributions from private prisons.

Private prisons don’t really help the public either. The modern concept of private prisons was first implemented in the 1980s with the hope that privatized prisons would spare the government from maintenance costs. However, the results have been anything but reassuring: 24 cost-benefit analyses revealed that no money was saved in the prison system.

In fact, private prisons have been shown to result in poorer security. Because dangerous criminals are harder to contain, private prisons often send them back to the federal system. The federal system, in turn, often downgrades these dangerous criminals and relegates them to less dangerous classifications, thereby convincing the private prisons to accept them. The prisoners are then able to escape the under-securitized private prisons.

It has also resulted in a higher rate of serious offenders; in fact, private prisons were seven times more likely than public prisons to house violent offenders, and, correspondingly, there was a 65 percent higher rate of prison assaults in private prisons. Private prisons are also sometimes unsanitary — in one instance, inspectors reported that a particular private prison’s floor was covered with human feces.

Perhaps the greatest conflict of interest that confronts public prisons is the fact that private prisons are paid more for holding their prisoners for longer periods of time. Private prisons are disinclined to offer parole even to inmates convicted of light offenses, because then they would make less money.

All evidence indicates that lawmakers should get rid of private prisons. So why don’t they? The answer is simple: Without private prisons, lawmakers don’t get campaign contributions from private prisons.

All in all, if you want a slice of the American dream’s good investment with a bittersweet touch of corruption, try getting your own prison!

Just make sure to divvy up a certain portion of your shares with your local congressman. Call it insurance.

Kevin Hwang is a senior at Athens High School who is taking classes at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. Should private companies be allowed to run prisons? Email Kevin at

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