Michael Dougherty is a prosecutor and an unlikely advocate for criminal justice reform. In an October 25, 2017 online article for Medium, he called for the elimination of private prisons, saying profit should not have a seat at the criminal justice table. To underscore this point, Dougherty pointed out that the State of Colorado had 14,000 inmates in the state’s 22 correctional facilities. He added that 20 percent of the state’s total prison population of nearly 20,000 is housed in three private prisons whose only purpose is to turn a profit off their incarceration.


Incarcerating People for Profit


The very concept of a private prison is not to effect individual rehabilitation. A private prison has one fundamental objective: to house inmates at institutional capacity and to run the day-to-day operations of the facility in the most cost-effective manner possible to make the greatest profit possible.  Prison rehabilitation programs and quality personnel necessary to make them succeed are expensive. Anything expensive in a private prison is expendable.


And therein lays the core difference between a state run penal facility and a for-profit private prison. State corrections officials understand that 95 percent of prison inmates will return to society. They want to expend the effort and resources necessary to at least attempt to facilitate a successful reentry into the general community of their discharged inmates.


Recidivism Generates Profit


Private prisons, on the hand, do not care whether or not its inmates are released (private prison corporations are not keen on seeing profit walk out the front gate). Moreover, it runs against the grain of profit to try to rehabilitate its sources of profit. They make profit off a confined inmate, not a discharged one. These greedy, modern-age robber barons want the inmates to fail in society. Their recidivism generates profit for the shareholders.


The for-profit penal motive is staggering. Dougherty pointed out that in 2015-16 alone the taxpayers of Colorado shelled $77 million to private prison corporations.


“As a former prosecutor for the past 20 years” Dougherty added, “I strongly believe that a profit-based prison system completely undermines the mission, integrity, and fairness of our justice system.”


DOJ Returns to Profit Based Prisons


In 2016, the U.S. Justice Department discontinued the use of private prisons to house federal inmates. President Trump’s campaign for the presidency was strongly financed and supported by private prison corporations. The president assured the CEOs of these corporations that he would be private prison-friendly once in office. The president did not disappoint. This past February the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department would return to the use of private prison, allowing Trump to once again dismantle another Obama-era directive.


U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a member in good standing with the “lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd, issued a one-paragraph statement announcing the policy change:


“The [Obama] memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the [Bureau of Prison’s] ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system. Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to the previous approach.”


Greedy Campaign Donors See Profits Returning


The “future needs” of the Bureau of Prison means simply that private prisons are needed to house the increased number of federal prisoners Trump’s “war on illegal immigration” and “war on drugs” will inevitably produce—and this will permit Trump’s private prison contributors to reap the profit benefits.


The federal Bureau of Prisons currently has roughly 22,000 of its inmates housed in 12 private prisons owned and operated by three corporations: Management and Training Corporation, the GEO Group and CoreCivic, once known as Corrections Corporation of America.


Private Prisons Not Safer or Cheaper


The decision by the Obama administration to eliminate the use of private prisons came after the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General issued a scathing report that found private prisons to be less safe for inmates and incurred far more security problems than the Bureau-run prisons. Accepting the inspector’s general report, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates echoed the private prison sentiment shared by Dougherty:


“[Private prisons] do not provide the same of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and … they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”


Dougherty was blunter, striking the bullseye with these observations: state-run prisons should punish the offender, strengthen public safety, and provide convicted felons with an opportunity to rehabilitate and successfully rejoin society.


“The overarching goal is for the prisoner to never re-enter the correctional system,” the prosecutor said. “However, private prisons have a perverse incentive to house criminal for longer periods of time and to set them up for recidivism—to turn the inmates into repeat offenders.”


Immigration Detention Centers are Prisons


Tragically, as Lise Olsen wrote in the Houston Chronicle this past October, “the private prison business is booming as President Donald Trump delivers on his campaign promise to crack down on immigrants here illegally. In the first three months of his presidency, at least 113,828 immigrants were locked up in 180 different facilities nationwide – a 10 percent increase over that period in 2016 …”


The State of Texas was the first in line to suck the swamp mud out of the pig’s trough, as Olsen pointed out:


“Some of the most lucrative private detention deals involve two ICE family centers built in Texas without public bidding under what the government considered an emergency – mass arrivals of families and unaccompanied children from Central America.


Border Crossings Down, Detention Population Up


“Under the Trump administration, both Texas’ family detention center contracts retain guaranteed minimum payments, even though the number of border crossings have dropped dramatically.”


There is no place for profit in the course for justice. Today’s private prison system is a throwback to the Old South’s plantation era when inmates were leased out to plantation owners and private business interests for cheap, slave labor. The inmates were profit in the brutal “convict leasing” system and they are profit in the violence-infested and dangerous corrupt environment of today’s inmate warehousing system in private prisons.