Private Jails in the United States

Private jails, prisons and detention centers have a long history in the U.S., as far back as 1852 when San Quentin was the first for-profit prison in the U.S. (it is currently state-owned). A more recent resurgence in private prisons came in the wake of wide-spread privatization that took place during the 1980s. Prior to the 1980s, some aspects of prison management had been privatized (services), but overall management had still been held by federal and state authorities. Currently there are over 150 private jails, prisons and detention centers in the U.S.

Why Private Jails Became an Attractive Option

In combination with an overall privatization push by President Reagan, prison populations soared during the “war on drugs” and prison overcrowding and rising costs became a contentious political issue. Private business stepped in to offer a solution, and the era of privately run prisons began. Privately run prisons promised increased, business-like efficiency, which would result in cost savings and an overall decrease in the amount that government would have to spend on the prison system while still provided the same service. It was also theorized that privately run prisons would be held more accountable, because they could be fined or fired, unlike traditional prisons (although the counter point is that privately run prisons are not subject to the same constitutional constraints that state-run prisons are).

Major Players in the Private Jail Business

Private prisons are big business, with annual budgets in the billions, and there are several large players in the private prison business such as Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut Securities), and Cornell Companies. Corrections Corporation of America alone owns more than 65 correctional facilities in the U.S. and houses over 100,000 inmates.

The Benefits of Private Jails

While the benefit provided by privately run jails may not match the rhetoric that came with them in the 1980s, there have been benefits associated with turning control of prisons over to private companies. In a study conducted by James Blumstein, director of the Health Policy Center at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, the study found that states that used private prisons could save up to $15 million a year. The U.S. Department of Justice‘s National Institute of Justice found that private prisons had a higher quality of services than traditional prisons.

The Criticisms of Private Jails

One of the most perverse incentives in a privately run prison system is that the more prisoners a company houses, the more it gets paid. This leads to a conflict of interest on the part of privately run prisons where they, in theory, are incentivized to not rehabilitate prisoners. If private prisons worked to reduce the number of repeat offenders, they would be in effect reducing the supply of profit-producing inmates.

While some studies have demonstrated that private prisons may save governments money, other studies have found just the opposite. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found no such cost-savings when it compared public and private prisons. This is in part because simple numbers don’t tell the whole story. For instance, privately run prisons can refuse to accept certain expensive prisoners, and they regularly do. This has the effect of artificially deflating the costs associated with running a private jail.

Getting Arrested Checklist: Have My Rights Been Violated?

Persons accused of committing a crime have a series of rights, some of which are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and some of which are guaranteed for other reasons. If you have been accused of a crime, how can you know if your rights have been violated? While an experienced criminal law attorney can answer that question, the following checklist of rights may also provide you with guidance.

Yes/No
____ I was allowed to remain silent: One of the most important rights of a person accused of a crime is the right to remain silent. You cannot be forced to divulge information to the police. This right stems from the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In other words, you are not required to prove your case for the police. They are responsible for developing the evidence to prove you have in fact committed a crime. The right to remain silent was confirmed in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona. If you attempted to remain silent in the face of police questioning, and were coerced or forced into speaking, your rights have been violated.
____ I was told that anything I chose to say can be used against me: The police must inform you that if you chose to speak, “anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law.” If you were told that you had the right to remain silent, but were not informed of the consequences of choosing to speak, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was allowed to have an attorney present when I requested one: Another absolute right of a person under arrest for a crime is the right to have an attorney present during questioning and the right to have counsel during any trial. If you requested an attorney during questioning, and the police denied you that request, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not asked questions while my attorney was absent: Once you request the assistance of an attorney, the police are prohibited from questioning you later without your attorney. In other words, you have the right to have an attorney present during the first, and any subsequent, talks with the police.
____ I was not forced to pay for my attorney’s services: Just as you are entitled to have an attorney, you are also entitled to a state-paid and appointed attorney if you can not afford your own attorney per a state’s or county’s guidelines. If you fall within this category, you will be assigned a public defender to represent you.
____ Although I initially didn’t ask for an attorney, when I asked for one later in my questioning, questioning stopped and didn’t start again until my attorney arrived: In many situations, criminal suspects may have false confidence that they can handle the matter on their own, without the assistance of an attorney. A criminal suspect who decides to answer police questions without an attorney present still has the right to ask for an attorney at any later point. Once a suspect asks for an attorney, all questioning must stop until the attorney arrives.
____ I was treated humanely: Unfortunately, police brutality and unfair treatment continue to occur in the United States. A criminal suspect is entitled to humane treatment, no matter how heinous the alleged crime. If you were not treated humanely, for instance if you were deprived of food and water or if you were beaten either during police questioning or while in a holding cell, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not held unfairly: The government cannot hold you for an extended period of time without charging you with a crime. For instance, if you are placed in a holding cell under suspicion of murder, the government must officially charge you with that crime within a specified period of time. In some states, a charge must be brought within forty-eight hours; in other states the time limit is different. If you have been held without being charged for longer than the legal amount of time, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not treated as guilty before convicted: Criminal suspects being held in jail awaiting trial may not be treated as guilty individuals before they have actually been convicted, no matter how strong the evidence is against them. The cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system is the belief that all people are innocent until proven guilty. If you were punished or treated unfairly while awaiting trial, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was given a speedy trial: You are also entitled to what is called a “speedy trial.” In other words, once you are charged the government cannot purposefully drag its feet and wait to commence a trial against you. If it does, your rights may have been violated.
____ I was not subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” while imprisoned: The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that prisoners must be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” Once you have been convicted of a crime and incarcerated, you must be treated in a manner that does not constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment. Therefore, any punishment that can be considered inhumane treatment or which violates the basic concept of a person?s dignity may be found to be cruel and unusual. For example, your rights may have been violated if you were given only dirty water to drink while incarcerated, or if the condition of your cell was unsanitary.