Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Problem with Private Prisons

Right now in the United States of America, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated.

And prisons are a huge business. You have the prison guard's union which is enjoying huge political clout in states such as California. Building prisons and incarcerating people is one of the fastest growing industries in California. Locking people up is a business - and right now, business is good.

The problem is - is this really the most effective thing? Look at the incentives:

More people into prisons means more money for the prison industry. Which means that the *incentive* is to get more people into the prison system, instead of out of it being productive citizens.

If you're the prison industry, why put money into schools? That would cut down on the number of people in prisons, which means less money for the prison industry. Why spend money on reforming people when that will get them out of the prison system faster?

Remember: incentives. Prisons - both private and government run - have an incentive to have more people inside their prisons because it makes the private industry more money, the prison worker's unions have an incentive because more prisoners means you need more guards which means you have more union members with clout.

So: change the incentive. My proposal:

The prison industry gets paid a rate per prisoner actively incarcerated, but the prison industry gets a higher rate for those out of prison on probation - as long as they haven't committed a crime.
This does two things. One, it reduces the incentive to simply have more prisons and prisoners. It encourages the prison system to do more than just lock people up - but to make them part of society. When the person is *out* of prison, the prison system actually makes *more* money.
Of course, there's a catch: they only make more money as long as the person is out of prison without committing a crime. So it's not just "throw them out", but "make sure they have the support and jobs and whatever else they need to stay out."

This will be actually *more* expensive than what we have now. The whole idea of the prison system being turned over to private industry was that it was going to cost less - you know, the market doing its magic and finding the best performance at the lowest cost.

Instead, we have overcrowding in the California prisons, to the point that the CA Supreme Court has ordered non-violent prisoners released to solve the problem.

Change the incentives, and you can change the results. Yes, it will mean more money, but right now, the current system isn't working. And, over time, as we work more in reforming and reintegrating people back into society, those costs will go down.


Mike said...

As long as we're fantasizing about solutions, could this issue be sidestepped in favor of getting to another root of the problem?

I'm referring to the utter failure of the War on Drugs: if prohibition was truly lifted, and the massive criminal enterprises it supports collapsed, the prison population would also collapse.

John Hummel said...

@Mike: I concur. It seems that too many crimes deal with the "war on drugs", and the level of scale.

In my mind, tobacco is legal - even though it has been shown to kill you. Alcohol is legal - even though it has been shown to kill you, and impair a person's judgment to the point of possibly harming/killing someone else (drunk driving, for example).

Something like marijuana has been proven to be just as unsafe - but no more unsafe than alcohol. Yet one is legal and the other is not.

I have never smoked anything, or drank alcohol, in my life. But I have no problem with the licensing, controlling, and taxing - much like tobacco and alcohol - marijuana for recreational use. Same rules apply: if you're caught driving/operating heavy machinery with it, you get a jail sentence. If you're in the privacy of your home, enjoy yourself.

The other drugs - heroin, cocaine, etc - I'd likely want to keep illegal for now while the marijuana law changes filter through and we see how it goes, only because those can cause injury/death in much shorter term than marijuana.

But I do agree with you: too much of the prison problem is from the "War on Drugs" and the complete stupidity of the laws.

Mike said...

I feel a little lame disclaiming ever having taken an illicit drug, but it's true and I have little interest in changing that fact. That said, I absolutely recognize the hypocrisy of enjoying the socially lubricative effect of alcohol, and that it's silly to outlaw one and not the other.

The overnight radio show I answer phones for here in Dallas was discussing this last week, and it's true that some of those who were ok with immediately decriminalizing marijuana couldn't quite bring themselves to get on board for the stronger drugs. We have several listeners especially who have seen the effects of meth on their small Texas towns.

The position I have come around to is that as long as one of these substances is illegal, the criminal enterprise will supply it and either the allure of the forbidden or the steeltrap of addiction will keep up the demand. The argument then turns to whether a greater or fewer number of people would be overdosing on a legally sold product.

If Phillip Morris had guaranteed that the syringe of heroin you're holding was a certain number of milliliters of a standardized dilution, would it be easier to control?

A "cheese" dealer (Mexican heroin + Tylenol PM) here in Dallas was recently busted, and it's believed she was a major supplier to local high school students. Would back-alley mixtures be as popular if you could get high on a "certified" product? The idea is wild enough that it feels sort of sci-fi. But I think any new problem it brings has to be better than the way we're doing things now.

John Hummel said...

@Mike: I get what you're saying. I think as far as the "harder" drugs, I'd still recommend a testing period. Start with mj, see if it works, then go on from there. I'd really want some studies done as to the safety of any drug before releasing it - perhaps keeping it until strict prescription controls.

But I'm very much a "start small, make sure it works, and go on from there."

Mike said...

Fair enough. It's all probably a pipe dream anyway.

Just fyi, lest I seem a random stranger: I am! But I bookmarkeded your blog long ago after the demise of The GIA/Gameforms, and still check in once in a blue moon. Yay internet.