Skip to main content

America's For-Profit Prison System Is Out of Control

The private prison system in the United States is big business, so its major flaws do not get fixed.

The private prison system in the United States is big business, so its major flaws do not get fixed.

History of America's For-Profit Prison System

To start with the most basic of ideas, there is a reason for setting up a system of government in the first place, though everyone knows getting a nation to agree on a single code of law is next to impossible. Jurisprudence is the word for the study and theory behind law—that is, why we uphold the law—and it's something the system of checks and balances in the American government is designed to preserve.

Part of the government's job, historically, is to protect society and keep it in check with a prison system. We prescribe incarceration to certain individuals for which the court agrees, per the existing legislation, it is a just penalty. But throughout history, this enormous power of authority has wandered far from good governance. In the past, tyrants could simply jail their political enemies. It was a good way to preserve a ruler's power.

The Privatization of U.S. Prisons

In the United States, the prison population skyrocketed by 700% during the 1970s and '80s, outpacing population growth and the crime rate. Very special conditions led to this spike in the prison demographic. New, tough-on-crime legislation was put in place as part of Reagan's blind yet popular War on Drugs policy. As a result, crowding public jails led to the privatization of U.S. prisons.

The jails were costing the government too much, so the existing private jail companies—which made up a much smaller industry at that time—sought to solve this problem by taking the reins. This was the beginning of incarceration as a full-fledged private industry in America, headed by private companies (today, the CCA, MTC, and GEO) that stood to benefit by bending the prison system to their will. And bend they did!

This new economic real-estate developed as you might expect. The number of youth in the system exploded. Non-violent offenders and drug users filled the prisons. There was new incentive to incarcerate people and prolong sentences. And now, there was actually less motivation to rehabilitate prisoners. Lengthy, rigorous probation and parole sentences ensured a constant flow of violations back into the institutions (a concept known as recidivism).

Major Profits From Prisons

These private companies and their CEOs began to profit enormously. With their vast capital, they have put politicians and judges to work and paid to get them re-elected. They have grown their roots into the very framework of America's legal system—the probation departments, police departments, politicians, judges, lawyers, and district attorneys. All these are grown into the ethical mess of privatized prisons.

The issue is a pervasive one. The entire psychology and culture of the penal system changed, and many don't realize the damage it realistically does to society.

The prison companies get their money whenever a service is provided to inmates: a percentage from commissary items, a percentage from phone (or tablet) usage, and for the provision of health, food, or transportation. They are compensated for their expenditures plus salary by the state. Huge amounts of money are generated this way.

Right now, the U.S. contains about 5% of the world's total population, but 25% of its prison population. There are over 3.7 million American citizens either in prison or on probation/parole today—that's over twice the entire population of the city of Philadelphia!

How Do We Realign a Broken System That Makes So Much Money?

These facts, along with my own small palette of observation, have led me to conclude that America's justice system could afford a service much more in line with jurisprudence. The problem seems to be that the potential market gains of the prison system has created a social force since privatization. This force extends beyond the desks of the executives in control, and into the minds and the bank accounts of inmates, lawyers, judges, probation officers, and corrections officers alike. This social force has typically responded to criticism by steeling itself and working to maintain its stream of revenue. So how do we change it if it's being safeguarded?

While I can't say for sure, I feel a certain duty to raise awareness about all the fallout linked to this system. I hope it could actually change things one day. Too often the corruption and over-the-top punishments are overlooked; all the attention is shifted to the offender.

5 Things We Need to Change About the U.S. Prison System

To try to promote awareness, I've outlined 5 especially egregious things about the American prison system. Understand that we have a whole monster to dismantle. It's time to realign our penal system!

  1. There Are Too Many Youth in the System
  2. Non-Violent and "Drug Offenders" Should Not Be Incarcerated
  3. The Goal Should Be Rehabilitation, Not Recidivism
  4. Sanitation, Health, and Safety Concerns Should Be Taken Seriously
  5. Racism and Unchecked Authority Must Be Stopped
The number of children incarcerated each year is steadily declining. But we should still remain vigilant and focus on learning about the offender and trying to help them.

The number of children incarcerated each year is steadily declining. But we should still remain vigilant and focus on learning about the offender and trying to help them.

1. There Are Too Many Youth in the System

The way the American system has dealt with youth offenders has gone through some drastic changes in the past century. In the early 20th century, courts handled juvenile cases informally, until people started asserting children have the same legal rights as adults. The legal system responded in kind by setting up the infrastructure for children to be tried in their own special system. But the 1970's and 80's saw an era of more stringent times for American youth, and harsher sentencing for children became widespread. An ideology of "adult crime, adult time" began to spread like wildfire across the United States.

The full and exact intentions of every person in the legal system can't be gleaned. But we do know of at least one story where things got way out of hand. In the early 2000's, there was a judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania who was popular for being tough on youth offenders. Judge Mark Ciavarella forced heavy sentences on children and their families—sentences that could be described as traumatic. Many of them did not even have proper counsel in court. One child, who was 14, was charged with receiving stolen property when his parents bought him a scooter they didn't realize was stolen. He spent 5 years incarcerated as a result of this. As it turns out, the judge was pocketing as much as $2.6 million from the builders of a new juvenile detention facility. At the end of it all, 3,000 juvenile lives were affected. To find out more about Kids for Cash and the namesake movie, visit the "Kids for Cash" website.

This is absolutely an outlier situation. Ciavarella was tried for his crime and is now a convicted felon doing jail time. But to me, this is the worst extreme of an already bad system. Though the rate of incarcerated youth in our country has gone down steadily since 1999, we need to continue to question how we handle our youth offenders. Children and adolescents are in the midst of their growth and development, and while they should be made wary of breaking the law, they should not be abused by it. Serious, life-altering damage can occur in these delicate situations. Extenuating circumstances such as mental health, personal rights, personal goals, special needs, should be taken into account in each case. The focus should be on avoiding re-offense. Alternatives, especially those that educate and rehabilitate, should be discussed.

Some youth facilities are less than professional, with staff members using corporal punishment and then covering it up. There is no way to verify the effectiveness of this brute and outdated methodology, and it's cause for concern over the future of American youth. See: Glenn Mills School in Pennsylvania

Authority should try its best to realize the potentially disastrous effects it can have on the lives of those it punishes. Of course being firm is important! Decisively firm. But inflicting unwarranted trauma on people's lives is a different thing altogether.

Scroll to Continue

Some youth facilities are less than professional...

The future of many American youth is at serious risk of being overlooked. The way we teach and respond to children and teens in the justice system is crucial to their success as adults.

2. Non-Violent and "Drug Offenders" Should Not Be Incarcerated

American prisons are notoriously filled with non-violent offenders. Do all of these people need to be in jail? Drug addicts, probation violators, parents doing time for child support, and the mentally ill fill America's supposedly correctional institutions. As politicians grandstand, working everybody up by promising to be tough on crime, those cheering in the audience may not be fully aware of the consequences for society. Because once the gavel falls, no one wants to hear it! The truth is that these politicians are often receiving money, and if they want their campaigns to be generously funded, they will do the bidding of these very powerful organizations.

Think of all the children whose arguing parents put each other in jail over money. How is that a solution to the problem? There is a third player in this game, who often wins as a result of the other two fighting. The children all too often suffer while one of their parents is in jail, solely for missing one child support payment while on probation. This just exacerbates the problem. As it does with drug addicts, for whom incarceration can be a devastating string of long prison sentences and unforgiving probation officers. These people simply need treatment, and there is no reason to lock them up for hot urine tests.

The mentally ill often undergo the same sort of cold treatment from the law as drug offenders, doing heavy time for nonviolent crimes and re-offending. It is simply sick to prey on certain offenders and use them as a source of revenue!

The simple fact is we are subjecting too many people to the wrong environment, and the reason we are doing it is because of money. This process needs to stop. It is hurting American society. Remember, the goal is to protect society from itself. Not to enrich certain members of society while others suffer at the hands of corruption.

Hundreds of thousands are incarcerated every year in the U.S. for marijuana law violation.

Hundreds of thousands are incarcerated every year in the U.S. for marijuana law violation.

Human Rights Watch: United States (2014)

3. The Goal Should Be Rehabilitation, Not Recidivism

That being said, there is certainly a line to draw. I think you'd find that most people agree with the premise of incarceration as a service to society, minus all the political warping that has taken place here in the U.S.

Resources—real, effective resources—should be provided to people who have been incarcerated and want to improve their lives. In many cases, these sorts of networks are becoming a reality, though that is a hard thing to measure.

Unfortunately, the motive of profit and want for recidivism is pretty deeply obscured within, for example, a probation/parole department. But it is something that needs to be addressed.

There is an inherent problem with the way probation departments function and their propensity for overkill.

You've probably heard of police departments searching hard for crime towards the end of each month in order to make a certain quota, right? Well, just like it rests on the officer's shoulders and conscience to apply the same force on society at all times, so it goes with probation departments. The goal is to be a service to society, not to build a resume or show you're a participator at work. I can't really offer any brilliant ideas, but there needs to be some kind of incentive to keep these departments (and the rest of the penal system) in ethical order. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

A hot (failed) urine test is a common reason for an offender to be sent back to prison.

A hot (failed) urine test is a common reason for an offender to be sent back to prison.

4. Sanitation, Health, and Safety Concerns Should Be Taken Seriously

For being such a wealthy country, America's prisons can get pretty nasty. This is obviously a problem that varies from place to place (but I heard some of the prisons in the South are disgusting). If you have an open sore, you're going to want to keep it away from any and all surfaces, because MRSA is most likely abundant. Sleeping next to a shared toilet isn't really sanitary, either. Health and sanitation conditions and services should always satisfy basic human needs. Incarceration is the punishment... not infection!
Safety should be taken seriously. Being subjected to the possibility of rape or grievous bodily harm is not something that should be tolerated at all. Prison is not an equal sentence for everyone, but in my opinion we should be doing our best to make it that way. There should be sincere attempts to prevent instances of serious violence at the moment they begin, in any context.

If left untreated, MRSA turns into a fatal blood infection.

If left untreated, MRSA turns into a fatal blood infection.

5. Racism and Unchecked Authority Must Be Stopped

People in prison don't have the same rights as those on the outside. There is a wall between you and them. Being on lock-down all day and night often causes people to act desperately, but that doesn't mean all their complaints are a result of empty anger. Real wrongs are done to them all the time, and they deserve to be heard!

Especially in regard to the huge racial disparity that exists between American prisons and the general population today. Racism in the justice system is hypocrisy, and it should be called out and dealt with. We want to build up a government that punishes only to help society, not in reaction to skin color.

There are many opportunities along the way for racism to be a factor in someone's case. But racism isn't even the only thing that can lead to an overkill sentence.

When the punishment is overkill, it can really offset a person's life, and sadly, their sense of self-worth. An innocent man, over-penalized, could quickly become depressed as he sees the world pass him by and is harshly judged by society. Often times, property and resources dwindle away, and job opportunities just don't come. By being open-minded with regard to these things, you could really make a positive difference in someone's day, and in their entire life.

You might just be serving as the check for someone's unchecked, misguided authority.

I believe that right now in 2017, way too many felonies are being given for crimes that don't warrant such a heavy stigma be inflicted. I believe that in a good number of cases, Megan's Law is misappropriated. I think this is a time to be thoroughly aware of the culture on both sides of the wall, and the goal should be to humanize the whole thing. That doesn't mean making prison easy or enjoyable, but it does mean trying to ameliorate the situation from an ethical standpoint.

Let's get Poll-itical

My Story

Thank you for reading this article! I guess this is where I'll share that as an adolescent, I was put in juvenile hall for a 2-month stay. I had accidentally trespassed on a business property, and then violated probation after repeatedly sleeping in for high school. It just didn't feel like the right answer, and it was a major nuisance to my life. I felt bullied. Frustrated, I began to question the legal system. I missed my teachers, who also questioned the punishment. Those around me working for the system seemed to think there were no questions to be asked. This was absolute justice.

Since then, I have received a DUI for alcohol, one for marijuana (I was pulled for a headlight, a friend confessed to mine and his intoxication), and violated probation with a new case by doing damage to a local train station and business. For this, I was locked up in my county jail for 5 months. After that, I went back to jail for 6 weeks because I violated probation by using marijuana.

I understand and accept that I broke the law, and I am even willing to agree that incarceration may have been a just punishment for my case. But having been in the prison system, I can tell you it's ugly. Our culture has become tolerant of our own specific brand of over-incarceration. You repeatedly hear things like, "You must like it here!" or, "Don't like it? Don't come back!" These are taunts I've heard from both inmates and corrections officers. Lurking in the background, whenever phrases like this are uttered, is the dark shadow of the CCA and GEO executives who have gotten politicians elected, including judges, and have molded the system to be what it is today. But you can't do anything to change it, even if it is wrong. It can break you! Luckily for me, it just intensified my motivation and strengthened my resolve, though I often wonder if that would be the case for someone with a slightly different life.

Related Articles