Tennessee currently has 14 prisons of which 3 are privately operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
CCA is the largest private prison operator in the United States, with an inmate population larger than all but the federal government’s and 4 states. CCA manages 60 facilities, of which 44 are company owned.
Private prison management is different from private prison ownership. In private prison management, the state government contracts with a corporation to run certain prisons, usually because the state believes that the corporation can run it cheaper. Private ownership is when the corporation actually builds and owns the facility.
There are several reasons why a state would contract with CCA to run its prisons, but the reasons usually revolve around money. There is certainly nothing wrong with a state trying to save money, especially when its prison population is at or over capacity, like Tennessee’s, and more inmates are coming into the system daily. Every one of Tennessee’s 3 privately managed prisons – Hardeman County Correctional Facility, South Central Correctional Facility, and Whiteville Correctional Facility – are currently over capacity.
Sometimes the efforts to save money by privatizing prisons proves to be counterproductive: the best interests of the corporation are served when the prison is full, causing demand for more buildings and more beds because there are more criminals than the overburdened state can warehouse.
In some states privatizing is, in part, an effort to avoid lobbying by prison officer unions whose ranks are better served by full capacity prisons. More criminals mean more prisons and more guards.
Privatizing for that reason is usually counterproductive, because corporate lobbying is much stronger than the guards’ unions. The corporation can afford lobbyists both in Washington, D.C., and the state capitol to lobby for tougher laws to catch more people in the nets. More crimes mean more criminals and that means more prisons and more money.
Such laws are very beneficial for prisons, like 3 strikes laws, which can mean a life sentence on the 3rd felony conviction. Intense enforcement of laws against illegal drugs, including laws against possession, are usually favorites of private operators, while many law enforcement agencies favor de-criminalization of drug possession.
The U.S. imprisons a larger proportion of its population than any other country in the world, except perhaps North Korea. It costs a tremendous amount of money to lock everyone up and throw away the key, especially for acts that harm no one but the actor himself.
Prison operation should be the responsibility of the people through their state governments. Farming out corrections to private companies is a very bad idea.
If states want to save money, they could de-criminalize drug possession, immediately release all inmates serving time for possession, carefully review 3 strikes laws, and review 3 strikes convictions even more carefully.
That’s enough bad news for now. Perhaps we can look at Tennessee’s prison system more in-depth in the future. Until then, thanks for reading this blog and for coming to this web site.
- Darrell Castle