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Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America

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Results vary somewhat, but when inconsistencies and research errors are adjusted the
savings associated with investing in private prisons appear dubious. Even minimal
savings are far from guaranteed, and many studies claiming otherwise have been
criticized for their methodology. The available data belies the oft-claimed economic
benefits of private contracting, and points to the practice being an unreliable
approach toward financial stability.

Even if private prisons can manage to hold down costs, this success often comes at
the detriment of services provided. Nationwide, public funds for prisons are already
limited, leaving little excess spending that can be cut. Therefore, private prisons must
make cuts in important high-cost areas such as staff, training, and programming to
create savings. The pressure that companies feel to maintain low overhead costs
combined with less direct oversight are likely what led researchers at the University
of Utah to conclude that, “quality of services is not improved” in private prisons.

Finally, private prison companies’ dependence on ensuring a large prison population
to maintain profits provides inappropriate incentives to lobby government officials
for policies that will place more people in prison. This is evidenced by the creation
and coordination of model legislation through conservative lobbying groups, as well
as in the political contributions and lobbying efforts of individual companies. This
effort to increase reliance on incarceration comes at a time where America’s rate of
imprisonment is the highest in the world and when the prison population is far
beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of public safety.

The available evidence does not point to any substantial benefits to privatizing
prisons. Although there are instances where private prisons result in small savings,
the structure and demands of for-profit prisons appear to produce a negative overall
impact on services. In order to reconcile this information with the continued claims
that private prisons are superior, one must assume that these contentions are
couched more in ideology than in facts.