Should Prisons Be Privatized?
Ana Margarita González February 2, 2015
The human rights situation of imprisoned individuals is deplorable in most parts of the world. In Latin America, the prison situation has been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and, in countries such as India and South Africa, civil soceity organizations monitor prisoners’ conditions, in particular, the situation of women in prison.
This crisis stems from several causes. The first is the adoption of an inappropriate criminal justice policy based on repressive policies of social control that prioritize prison as a response to security problems, and make disproportionate use of preventive detention. For example, in Latin America, an extimated 40% of those imprisoned are held under preventive detention, and, at the global level, this number represents around 7.4% of those detained. Preventive detention, which should be an exceptional measure, generates huge social and economic costs.
The second set of causes is associated with unacceptable prison conditions as a result of overcrowding and the precarious infrastructure of prisons. Overcrowding levels constitute a form of cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment, as evidenced in poor sanitary conditions, inadequate food, and deficiencies in medical treatment. In some cases, human rights organizations have denounced the abuse of solitary confinement and forced medication of prisoners, such as in the Mangaung prison in South Africa.
Some countries have attempted to address this crisis by building new prisons or modernizing existing. Nonetheless, in the past decade, privitization of prisons has taken center stage as a state response to the prison crisis. The trend toward privitizing prisons began 30 years ago in the United States, and has spread to Latin American countries, such as Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and Brazil, as well as other regions of the world, including South Africa and Nigeria.
Although contracting private companies to provide certain, peripheral prison services is common (providing uniforms, for example), the privatization model based on contracting private entities to provide services central to the running of a prison, such as the design, construction, administration and even security have greater ethical, legal, social and economic implications.
First, enforcing a sentence is an essential part of the state function of administering justice, and also is a source of the state’s authority and legitimacy. In other words, administering prisons is too important for the public interest to be left to the vagaries of the free market and questionable interests of private companies
Second, there is not empirical evidence to demonstrate that privatization policies improve the situation in prisons. By contrast, it often has negative effects. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, it has increased overcrowding: between 1999 and 2010, the number of inmates in private prisons increased 80%, much higher than the 18% increase among the entire imprisoned population that official statistics report. This increase is due primarily to the fact that the business of prisons depends on high rates of imprisonment. Privatization creates a perverse incentive to maintain a punitive criminal policy that privileges private companies in the tension between the public interest to reduce the prison population and the private objective of maximizing economic benefits.
Finally, in terms of economic and social benefits, the system of privatization can be more problematic. For example, the Chilean model of granting concessions has shown that private prisons do not reduce costs for the state, given that the daily cost per prisoner increases: while in 2004, the public prison system spent 11 USD per prisoner, this amount increased to 35 under the private system. Leaving prisons in the hands of private business also does not mean an improvement in prison conditions, as the Mangaung prison (run by the global security firm G4S) crisis, fueled by allegations of prisoner abuse, demonstrates.
It is imperative for states to adopt concrete measures to address the structural deficiencies of prisons. Some measures can be of immediate effect, such as releasing certain categories of prisoners, by age, seriousness of the crime, or time served. However, in the long term, states must implement a criminal policy that balances the needs of citizen security with respect for human rights, and aims to substantially reduce the prison population and achieve rehabilitation of those imprisoned. It is difficult if not impossible to achieve such changes under a policy of privatization of prisons.