Let’s go, jailers! Let’s go! (Clap, clap.) Let’s go, jailers! Let’s go! (Clap, clap.)
That could be the cheer at Boca Raton’s Florida Atlantic University soon. The school has just signed a $6 million deal to rename its football building GEO Group Stadium. The GEO Group Inc. is one of the largest private prison companies in the United States.
The problem with naming your stadium after a prison biz is not simply that it will make for years of terrible jokes. “The ball seems to have escaped the receiver.” “That was the longest yard.” It’s that if you wouldn’t name your stadium for Sing Sing, there’s even less reason to name it for a company that makes more money the more people it puts behind bars and the longer it can keep them there.
“These outfits make money by having their prisons filled,” says William Anderson, an economics professor at Frostburg State University. One way to make sure there are always heads in prison beds is to lobby for harsher laws. “So they will lobby for laws that call for incarceration of actions that previously people did not go to prison for,” Anderson says. These actions could include things such as smoking marijuana and overstaying a visa.
The result of our increased eagerness to lock folks up is that America now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. For every 100,000 Americans, we’ve got 730 behind bars. Our nextclosest “competitor” is Russia, with 500 per 100,000. Iran has 350, and China is looking like Sweden or something, with just over 100. Peace out, China! How is it that America is so much more jailhappy than even the most repressive regimes?
The trend began in the 1970s, says Sabrina Jones, co-author with Marc Mauer of the graphic book version of “Race to Incarcerate.” Until then, the number of prisoners in the United States had been pretty stable throughout the 20th century. But in just four decades, it skyrocketed from about 250,000 inmates in 1970 to 2.3 million today.
Private prisons started popping up in the 1980s, when the one-two punch of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences meant that not only were more people going to prison but also they were staying there longer than ever. Suddenly, we needed a slew of new cells. Private companies promised they could build and run new prisons more cheaply and more efficiently than the government could, so the government handed them our tax dollars.
Unfortunately, the promises don’t seem to have panned out. A 2009 meta-study by researchers at the University of Utah found “prison privatization provides neither a clear advantage nor (a) disadvantage compared (with) publicly managed prisons.”
So it sounds like six of one and a half-dozen of the other, right? Not quite. Private prisons have to make a profit, so they have an incentive to cut corners. A study by The Sentencing Project found that personnel and programs are “the two most expensive aspects of incarceration,” so these “receive comparatively less funding in order to maintain costs.”
Less funding for personnel means guards who are paid less and trained less. This may explain why other studies have found that assaults in private prisons can occur at twice the rate they do in publicly funded prisons. That’s scary.
Less funding for programs is scary, too. “Most prisoners do eventually get released,” Jones says. “So any services we can provide through re-entry programs or education will make it a better world for all of us.”
I’d rather convicts leave prison with a skill than with a grudge. I’d also rather not have my tax dollars left to a private prison company that is so flush with profits that it can afford to endow a football stadium.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”