Phoenix, AZ- In principle, a declining crime rate and fewer people in prison should be a good thing since the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Less people in prisons should in theory save state governments money, but that is not the case. Instead putting less people in prisons is costing states millions because of the contracts states hold with private prisons.
Advocacy group, In the Public Interest, analyzed 60 contracts between private prisons and state governments and would they found should be alarming. Two-thirds of the contracts reviewed by the advocacy group contain occupancy clauses which require states to keep beds full or face costly penalties or lawsuits.
The required minimum occupancy in many states ranges from 80 to 100 percent, but the majority of contracts requiring 90 percent occupancy. Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia have contracts which require between 95 and 100 percent occupancy.
In 2010 at a prison in Arizona, two inmates escaped which launched a multi-state manhunt. After the escape, Arizona officials decided they would stop sending prisoners to what they described as a “dysfunctional” facility, according to the Huffington Post. The private prison company running the facility, Management & Training Corp. said they lost $10 million because of the empty beds and sued the state. Arizona state officials managed to negotiate a settlement for $3 million dollars as the prison company worked on improving conditions at the facility, but three months after the a agreement the prison made little headway.
Private prison companies say these quotas actually save the state money because they don’t have to raise the daily rate as long as they maintain occupancy quotas.
These contracts back states in the corner and give them less control over the way prisons on their state are run. There is no incentive for a private prison to improve conditions or correct deficiencies when they are going to get paid anyway. A study found that private prisons are dirtier, more violent and less accountable than state run facilities. It’s like crime, if there are no consequences, criminals would have no reason to stop breaking the law.
The state isn’t the only loser in this situation, the citizens loose too. These occupancy quotas thwart efforts to reform sentencing and end the ineffectual war on drugs. The pressure states feel to keep beds full trickle down to law enforcement and judges. You can’t truly have justice if you have to keep beds full so a private company can maintain their profits.
With minimum occupancy agreements there is the unstated push for law enforcement officers to catch more criminals—that’s actually a good a thing. But when these people go before a judge, they could be given maximum jail sentences when they would otherwise receive reduced penalties simply so the state can maintain their occupancy quotas.
Private prison companies have backed three-strike laws, which throw people with three minor convictions in jail for the rest of their lives. Now that’s a way to keep beds full. When crime rates drop, the taxpayer must foot the bill, so the bed quota may be a short term discount to states, but in the long run Americans pay a higher price by having our politicians and state officials beholden to private prisons which are only concerned with profits.