Issues & Insights

President Biden Should End His Misguided Assault On Private Prisons


President Joe Biden has garnered much media attention with his calls to improve the deeply dysfunctional criminal justice system. Unfortunately, his recent executive order scaling back the use of private prisons is anything but unifying and could mean more people incarcerated. Despite receiving a perpetually poor rap in the news, private prisons can improve inmates’ lives and deliver justice at a lower cost than the broken status-quo. It’s time for Biden to make private prisons part of the conversation on criminal justice reform.

America’s vast public prison system prioritizes perpetual punishment over preventing future crime and heartbreak. There are approximately 1.5 million Americans locked up in abysmally maintained state and federal prisons, and about two-thirds of released inmates will serve time again in the future. Unfortunately, Biden’s executive order halting any new contracts between the Department of Justice and private prisons will make matters even worse.

It’s difficult to understand why politicians put the blame on private institutions for the incarceration crisis in America, given that the overwhelming majority of incarcerations happen in government-run facilities. As Fordham University law professor John F. Pfaff noted in a recent law review article, only about 8% of U.S. prisoners are held in privately run facilities.

“Mass incarceration is a public sector affair in the United States,” Pfaff noted.

And when private parties are allowed to contract to run prisons, the results are usually better. Disruptive incidents and deaths per capita tend to be lower at private facilities, according to data provided by the Department of Justice’s inspector general. In addition, sexual assault rates (for both staff-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate) are lower at private prisons than public facilities.

Some of the data are difficult to interpret. Contract prisons tend to report intercepting more contraband, though it is hard to say if that’s because there is more contraband in those facilities to begin with or if private companies are better at maintaining control.

The best insights come not from incomplete statistical comparisons, but rather from in-depth examinations.

The reality is that private prisons successfully deploy far more resources to deter recidivism. For instance, prominent prison contractor GEO is collaborating with the National Federation of Federal Employees on a program that helps returning citizens find jobs. Within the past two years, nearly 100 former inmates who participated in Continuum of Care during their stay at the Rivers Correctional Institute made personal and professional improvements after relocating to the Washington, D.C., area. These efforts have a real impact in giving the formerly incarcerated a second chance at improving their lives. The company’s private facilities in Florida offer GEDs, trade courses, and rehabilitation assistance to help inmate work through addiction issues.

The success of contract prison operations is not just an American phenomenon. Reports from the Land Down Under have highlighted how a privately managed prison facility in Australia has attained significant success. The Ravenhall Correctional Centre located in Victoria has been operating for only around three years but has achieved a commendably low recidivism rate of about 20%. This is no small feat, considering that the recidivism rate is more than twice as high (43%) for other facilities in the Australian state. KUNC contributor Rae Ellen Bichell describes the facility in detail:

The area just beyond security … is full of flowers. Nearby, the sound of drumming emanates from a building … Inmates … appeared to be walking around freely, using their fingerprints to pass through gates separating the residential areas from places where they might talk to a medical provider or take a class.

Overall, a variety of evidence shows that private correctional facilities are not only focused on rehabilitation. As debate intensifies over the Biden administration’s ill-considered approach, TPA hopes the president and his aides will examine the evidence and reach a sensible conclusion about the role of private facilities in criminal justice reform.

Biden promised to make full use of data and evidence when he became president. The facts are clear – private prisons are helping people inside and outside of prison.

David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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