The criminal justice system in the United States has been widely criticised for various reasons, including racial inequality and low effectiveness rates in preventing recidivism. However, one of the most pressing issues being discussed at the moment is the conditions in prisons. Privately owned prisons are common in America, and the owners of such institutions are often willing to lower the quality of food, facilities, and medical help to achieve higher profit margins. This has an adverse impact on inmates, who can develop physical or mental health conditions as a result of maltreatment. The present paper will explore the issue of these ‘grizzly’ conditions in public prisons, arguing that private prisons need to be strictly regulated in order to prevent harm to inmates.
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Private prisons have become particularly prevalent in America over the past two decades. According to Williams, the number of inmates in private facilities has grown by 45% since 2000, whereas the total number of prisoners has increased by only 10%. Privately run prisons are usually operated by large companies, such as the Management & Training Corporation and GEO Group. These companies are in charge of managing prison conditions, hiring and training correctional officers, and maintaining security.
Private prisons achieve profits by signing contracts with state governments and, like any other government contractor, have to fulfil a variety of requirements. For example, in Mississippi, private prisons are required to ensure that the costs of operations are below $26 per day for each minimum-security prisoner (Williams). Although this figure is higher in some other states, private prisons are still forced to cut their expenses to ensure profitability.
Conditions in Private Prisons
There are two main ways for private prisons to reduce expenditures. On the one hand, they can decrease the pay of correctional officers and other staff, which would result in direct savings. However, such measures might result in high turnover and understaffing, which would undermine the security of private prisons and impair the owner’s position as suitable a contractor for state governments. On the other hand, the management of private prisons can save money by reducing the quality of services and living conditions. Cheaper meals for inmates, a lower number of correctional officers, fewer cleaners, and other cost-saving measures are widely used by private prisons in America.
One article by Williams documents the dire conditions in a private prison in Mississippi, which has been the target of a major lawsuit in 2018. According to witnesses’ accounts, the number of correctional officers and other staff is too low to control the prisoners. While there are security measures preventing them from escaping, inmates can come out of their cells after hours, engage in fights, and harm others (Williams).
Even those who are not violent would make weapons to protect themselves, thus increasing the risk of severe injury or death (Williams). The insufficient number of medical workers in prison also means that those who have been stabbed or beaten do not receive the care they need. One of the victims reported that his stab wounds and broken leg were left untreated for four days (Williams). Between January and April 2018, four prisoners died while in the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, owned by the Management & Training Corporation.
However, the threat of violence is not the only concern evident in poorly managed private facilities. Since a significant share of inmates have pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, the low availability of medical assistance impacts on them, too. For example, those with mental health problems are more likely to exhibit violent behaviour or harm themselves when prison staffing is insufficient. Indeed, one of the issues identified in the East Mississippi Correctional Facility is suicide. The increased stress associated with poor prison conditions, as well as the threat of violence and neglect, impair prisoners’ mental health, causing depression and suicidal behaviour.
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Another important issue resulting from prison policies and understaffing is the indifference of wardens and correctional officers. In most cases of violence shared by inmates in court, the guards either avoided intervening altogether or were too late. For example, one of the inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility shared that when an armed prisoner charged at him, the two guards who were on duty ran away (Williams). Other inmates reported being laughed at by the guards following an assault or rape.
Neglect or indifference by correctional officers can have significant consequences for inmates. First of all, it could lead to a sense of alienation and poor social support, causing inmates to join gangs for protection. Secondly, the increased threat of violence and victimisation as a result of neglect by correctional officers leads to chronic stress and trauma, which can have a negative influence on people’s lives after they are released from prison.
A study by Zweig et al. confirms that for inmates who experienced violence or were threatened while in prison, re-integration into society proved to be much more difficult (109). Results also showed that victimisation while in prison increased the risk of recidivism and substance abuse after release (Zweig et al. 84). This information proves that the terrible conditions in private prisons have both short-term and long-term consequences, posing a threat to inmate life and health.
One of the critical responsibilities of the criminal justice system is to ensure fair punishment and prevent recidivism. However, as evident from the previous section, the treatment of inmates in private correctional facilities is unfair and could pose an increased risk of future recidivism. If the conditions in private prisons do not improve, they will prevent the United States from addressing the issue of mass incarceration successfully.
One of the possible solutions to the problem is to establish control measures to check conditions in private prisons and collect inmates’ accounts regularly. This would help to identify the threat of violence, neglect, and misconduct by correctional officers. Another recommendation would be to establish national legislation that would prevent states from lowering prison expenses per inmate. Williams notes that the difference in prison budget correlates with the quality of living conditions and that significant variations exist between states. Therefore, national legislation would reduce the need for private prisons to cut costs, thus enabling them to ensure adequate staffing and security.
All in all, the conditions in many private prisons are indeed grizzly, and this has significant effects on prisoners. Inmates can experience physical injury and psychological trauma as a result of violence and neglect, which prevents them from re-integrating into society successfully. These issues point to the failure of the American criminal justice system to fulfil its responsibilities and indicate that a legislative change is required. Based on the secondary information collected, it is recommended that the United States establish a national policy to prevent states from setting low incarceration costs per inmate, and that living conditions in private prisons are regularly checked.
Williams, Timothy. “Inside Private Prisons: Blood, Suicide and Poorly Paid Guards.” The New York Times. 2018. Web.
Zweig, Janine M., et al. “Using General Strain Theory to Explore the Effects of Prison Victimization Experiences on Later Offending and Substance Use.” The Prison Journal, vol. 95, no. 1, 2015, pp. 84-113.