With 2.3 million prisoners, America’s unprecedented maze of prisons and jails holds the biggest incarcerated population in the world. Inside our prison walls are men, women, and children who have been arrested and sometimes convicted. They are all doing their time and desperately need whatever help and rehabilitation they can get that will allow them to return to their families safely and successfully. When I served my federal prison sentence for a drug offense, I was part of a remarkable and unexpected community of women struggling for survival under difficult circumstances. After I was released, I wrote the book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about what I experienced and witnessed during my time behind bars.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that some prisons are operated by private companies with business models entirely dependent on the U.S. policy known as mass incarceration. The two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, collected $361 million in profits last year. Some private prison contracts require a 90% occupancy guarantee from government—if the beds aren’t full, the public pays penalties to the corporations. This profit motive creates obvious and profoundly perverse incentives that run counter to public safety and justice, while making it even harder for people to successfully return to their families and communities after being released. An increasing amount of research shows prisons held by private companies contribute to recidivism.
At the end of last season, fans of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” created by Jenji Kohan, saw Litchfield prison taken over by a private prison corporation. In the new season, which starts today, we’ll watch the show’s fictional women prisoners continuing to find ways to survive together, but there’s a new pressure: the consequences of turning incarceration into a profit-making venture. After a flood of new transfers fills Litchfield to overflowing, the prison becomes painfully understaffed and under-resourced. This is true to reality—to maximize profit for their investors and reduce operational costs, private prisons often cut corners on staffing and other essentials of safety. The resulting safety and human rights violations in some privately operated prisons have been horrific.
A new research brief from In the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocating for best practices in government contracting, details the several ways private prison companies negatively impact prisoners, correctional workers, their families, their communities, and American taxpayers. For example, understaffing correctional officers leads to more violence inside facilities. Between 2007 and 2009, CCA’s female Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky experienced more than twice the number of fights and other violent incidents than the state-managed Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, as well as horrific sexual abuse of the women held there. The companies also contract across state lines to fill beds in facilities they own, incarcerating people sometimes thousands of miles away from their homes. The state of Hawaii incarcerates more than a thousand prisoners at a private prison in Arizona. These prisoners lose contact with their families and communities, which studies have shown increases the likelihood of someone returning to jail or prison.
Women and men incarcerated at both private and public facilities usually come from our most vulnerable communities and families, and need a lot of help preparing for their release. One important step we can take in that direction is ending for-profit incarceration. These private profits come from taxpayer money that should go to fixing the criminal justice system instead of into shareholders’ bank accounts. If we stopped sending people to private jails and prisons, governments could recover hundreds of millions in tax dollars a year to spend on programs helping prisoners reenter our communities as productive citizens.
A good example is the gender-focused initiative at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. Under the facility’s Gender Responsiveness Action Plan, women prisoners attend seminars on healthy relationships and habits, safety awareness, and handling anger and stress. Incarcerated women across the country have very high rates of substance abuse, mental illness, and sexual and other physical victimization before incarceration. Significantly, the staff at WCCW is trained to work to help address past trauma many of the women there have suffered. Without addressing these root causes of crime and incarceration, prisons can’t possibly rehabilitate or restore the people we choose to lock away.
Reducing recidivism benefits all of us—prisoners, taxpayers, and the communities most impacted by our dysfunctional criminal justice system. But reducing the number of people we lock up doesn’t benefit prison profiteers. As long as there are private businesses financially benefiting from mass incarceration, the roadblocks to critically needed criminal justice reform are formidable. By ending state and federal governments’ use of private prisons, we can start to remove the profit motive from the center of our decisions on safety and justice; it has no place there.
Season 4 of "Orange Is The New Black" starts today on Netflix.
Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.