The future of private prisons

Prairie Correctional Facility in Minnesota
The Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., which is owned by Corecivic, has been closed since 2010.
MPR News | Mark Steil 2010

In August, the future of private prisons appeared to be hanging in the balance.

The Department of Justice announced it would phase out federal use of private prisons, and stock prices for corporations that run the facilities plummeted.

Sally Yates, the U.S. Deputy Attorney General, said in a memo:

"[Private prisons] simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."

But the financial outlook for these same companies rebounded after the November election of Donald Trump.

While President-elect Trump's plans for private prisons remain unclear, he has supported the use of such facilities in the past. In a town hall conversation with Chris Matthews on MSNBC in March, Trump said, "I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better."

Trump's comments stand in contrast to Yates' memo, and to the conclusions of David Dayen, a freelance journalist who has reported on the privatization of prisons.

Dayen joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to share what he learned in his research on Corecivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, and GEO Group — two companies that operate private prisons.

"They're two companies that control most of the market, so there's not a lot of competition in the private sector for new techniques or new ways of going about managing these facilities. It's really about radically cutting costs by limiting services," Dayen said.

"It's sort of the rationale underpinning all forms of privatization: The idea that the private market can always and forever provide these services more efficiently and more cheaply. Experience has yet to bear that out in all circumstances, and the private prison industry is just another example."

Arjun Sethi, a writer, civil rights lawyer, and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, also joined the conversation.

"These are for-profit corporations, in many cases publicly traded companies," Sethi said. "What they're interested in is their bottom line, and often that means things like rationing toilet paper, low wages, which means constant staff turnover, not enough blankets ... We've just seen this experience repeated time and again."

Representatives from several corporations that operate private prisons — CoreCivic, GEO Group and Management and Training Corproration — declined to participate in the conversation.

Sethi pointed to what he sees as an inherent conflict of interest within the private prison industry.

"The purpose of prisons is to, ostensibly, rehabilitate, and we should be hopeful that people who go to prisons can go in and out quickly." Sethi said, "But when a private prison is in the mix, they have every incentive for that prisoner to stay in that system because the longer that they stay in the system, the more money they make off that prisoner."

For the full discussion with David Dayen and Arjun Sethi on the future of private prisons, use the audio player above.

This conversation is the first in a series on criminal justice. Throughout the month of January, MPR News with Kerri Miller will host discussions on different facets of the justice system.