Like It or Not: Private Prisons

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Opinion piece by Jessica Szilagyi

Serving justice often means putting people in prison, depriving them of their liberty as punishment for crimes against society.

It’s a solemn responsibility, one we don’t talk about much. I mean, prisons are for criminals, right? They are, but in Georgia, it’s big business. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of any state, which means the cost of the prison system is expensive, and, in my opinion, it’s no place for private businesses and their profit motives.

Almost 8,000 of Georgia’s 50,000 prison inmates are housed in one of four private prisons, businesses that enter into contracts with the state to make money.

In most cases, I think the private sector does things better than the government can, but this isn’t one of them. Private prisons aren’t more efficient, and, ultimately, they have an overriding goal with these facilities: to make money.

Every year, the state renews contracts with private prisons promising to keep at least 90% of the beds full, and at that percentage, we pay a certain rate. If the beds are 100 percent full, the companies give the state a discount. 

To put it simply: the state has an incentive to house more inmates in private facilities to keep costs low and they can be fined or sued if occupancy requirements aren’t met.

Georgia currently has contracts with two private prison companies: CoreCivic and The GEO Group. CoreCivic recently changed its name after years of negative press as Corrections Corporation of America.

The state pays each of them more than $20 million a year.

Supporters of private prisons, many of whom are making money from these facilities, claim that housing inmates in private prisons are less expensive than a state-run facility, but while the “per day” cost may sometimes be lower, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has said “studies do not offer substantial evidence that savings have occurred." It’s hard to compare across levels of security and regions of the state, but it’s not like we’re saving millions of dollars.

Not only that, both CoreCivic and GEO have been on the receiving end of harsh criticism for years, both in Georgia and across the nation. These companies have been sued and fined for altering medical records, understaffing facilities, and allowing food shortages.

What’s even more frightening is that these companies are shielded from the transparency and accountability state agencies are subject to. The only things we see are the contracts and the lobbying donations. Everything else is sealed, secret, and protected by state statute. The problem is so bad that states like Iowa, Illinois, and New York have actually banned the use of private prisons.

Governor Deal has done a fine job at reforming our justice system, but this is one place where he still has work to do.

The state should make every effort to facilitate punishment and, when appropriate, improve the character of the inmate. But it’s hard to believe these private companies are given incentives to rehabilitate when there is a profit motive at stake. 

I like small government and I’m all for privatization of services, but this is just one of those things that need to be fully-controlled by the state. If you agree, let Governor Deal know we don’t want private companies running prisons in Georgia. Here are his email address and phone number:

(404) 656-1776

If using private companies may not cost taxpayers less, and if we aren't assured that these companies are focused on rehabilitation, what good are they?

DISCLAIMER: This segment represents the views of the commentator and not necessarily those of FOX 5 Atlanta.