It’s common knowledge, at this point, that the move toward private prisons has made conditions in the American corrections system even more dismal than it was before, as private contractors cut costs and services in order to maximize profits. But even more than this, outsourcing punishment to the private sector constitutes a privatization of justice itself. That’s the point made in a new article by Arizona State University law professor Mary Sigler, called “Private Prisons, Public Functions, and the Meaning Punishment” (Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2010, available for free download), which was discussed this past weekend on the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.
In her article, Sigler begins by reviewing the usual objections to the private prison boom that began in the 1980s:
[I]n order to turn a profit, private prison operators skimp on personnel training and staffing; offer only minimal educational programming and vocational training; and save space by housing inmates in cramped quarters. In addition, public accountability for prison conditions is undermined to the extent that public officials must rely on reports of abuse and mistreatment from within the private prisons themselves. Finally, the profit motive creates perverse incentives to extend inmate sentences and promote criminal justice policies that yield more and longer prison sentences regardless of whether they are in the public interest.
She then goes on to argue that private prisons also undermine what are supposed to be core tenets of American justice:
While these important policy considerations may be reason enough to worry about the proliferation of private prisons around the world, this paper defends the position that an even more basic consideration concerns the nature and justification of legitimate punishment. In a liberal democratic polity, punishment is an inherently public function. It is inflicted for public wrongs in the name of the people themselves. Outsourcing punishment to nonpublic agents thus represents the abdication of a core state responsibility.
In a system where the primary purpose of prison is retribution, Sigler writes, “punishment constitutes justice.” By privatizing prison, state and federal governments are “treating justice as a mere commodity.” The public is effectively delegating to private corporations a momentous social task: depriving other human beings of their liberty on a daily basis.
As we’ve written before, there’s an angle to all this that has to do with solitary confinement, which has become the primary means of discipline within prisons and jails. Every day, inmates in prisons and jails across the country are punished for breaking prison rules, and that punishment often consists of placement in solitary confinement, denial of parole, or effective extension of their prison terms. Even for individuals who are already in prison, this represents an additional deprivation of liberty.
In meting out these punishments, prison officials often serve as prosecutors, judges, and juries. In the case of private prisons, what this means is that employees of private corporations are depriving individuals of their freedom without due process of law. American men, women, and (yes) children are being placed in lockdown on the say-so of people who work not for any publicly elected government, but for Wackenhut, the Cornell Companies, or the Corrections Corporation of America.