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Private prisons are a stupid idea.

They’re the sort of free-market-enthusiast’s fantasy that in theory should work just fine, assuming a sufficiently vigilant regulatory agency watches over the industry, keen to pounce on any corporation that violates their standards.

If 2008 taught you nothing else, it should have taught you that regulatory agencies tend to suck at their jobs.

Again, in theory, private prisons should work just fine.  With a profit motive in place, a free market should be sufficiently responsive, adaptive, and innovative, as to lower costs while improving prisoner treatment.  Again, assuming that our notably inept or corrupt regulatory agencies don’t fail miserably at making sure that our free market pioneers don’t cut costs simply by mistreating the inmates or under-staffing their facilities, putting the guards at risk, etc.



The point is that, even in our free market wonderland, private prisons are still a stupid idea.

Because incarceration is a stupid idea.  Warehousing criminals, often on relatively minor offenses, taking them out of public society and thrusting them into the twisted tribal landscape of the average prison, and keeping them there long enough for useful skills to deteriorate and be replaced by skills useful in the prison environment, and then as a final injustice, branding them with the modern mark of Cain: a felony conviction?

In what conceivable world is this a good idea?

In any rational world, private prisons, assuming they existed at all, would be measured not only on their treatment of prisoners, but before all other things, the recidivism rates of their inmates.  Punishing the guilty may make some folks feel better, but unless it prevents them from repeating their behavior, it’s useless.

So in our sadly distant rational world, a private prison’s job would be… to put itself out of business.

Who wants to place bets on how many ways corporate executives would find to sabotage the mission statement of their own corporation?  Because I gotta tell ya, they seem to be ahead of the curve on this concept, given that studies have found private prisons incarcerate their prisoners longer with no benefit relative to recidivism rates.

Soooo… they effectively extend the sentences of their inmates, therefor making more money from each one, and then… nothing good happens except the corporation’s balance sheet improves?

Say it ain’t so.

And before you start in on some moralistic rant about how if they didn’t want to do the time, they shouldn’t have done the crime, and if they were serious about turning their life around there are resources in prison to help them do it, and they could always choose to live clean on the outside once their sentence is over, or any other such argument, keep in mind that prison sucks.

At least in the United States.

Expecting someone trapped in our system to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is borderline irrational.  This is well beyond the cruel jest of expecting such a thing from the bootless, this reaches the level of expecting it from someone who, if they did manage that particular feat of levitation, might well find that the world is collectively unimpressed by a floating felon.

Our recidivism rates are high because that’s what our system, intentionally or otherwise, is practically engineered to achieve.  Lock someone away from the world, impair their present possibilities and their future prospects, and then expect them to succeed once you let them out?

Please.  Let’s be honest and admit that this is not about justice.  “Justice”, as a concept in legal systems, is overrated.  “Justice” is an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, except that we know that that’s not justice at all, that’s “cruel and unusual”, and we can’t do that…

So we just take everything instead and call it fair.

Justice is a stupid idea.

Justice doesn’t “make things right”, and too often has little chance of stopping it from happening again.  Stuffing a man in prison for 20 years because he was some combination of young, stupid, desperate, or ignorant serves no one.  How is that “just”?  In what way is it proportionate or appropriate?  In what way does it help the victim, or society in general?

Sure, for our collective safety we can warehouse “dangerous” people away from the rest of the world, but how many of them are only become dangerous because of where we stuck them?

So no.  I’m not a big fan of justice as practiced in the American legal system, where the wealthy get slapped on the wrist and the poor get punched in the face.

Incidentally, before you start another rant about my bleeding heart, I’ll just put this one out front: I support the death penalty.  I do believe that there are people who are sufficiently dangerous that their freedom represents an unacceptable risk to society at large, and I also believe that keeping them locked up for the rest of their natural lives is simultaneously inhumane and an ineffective deterrent.  I’m not calling for an auto-de-fé of any convicted murderers, but a quick set of appeals followed by a relatively painless execution suits me just fine.

Short of execution though?  Rehabilitation.  Anything else is wasteful and inefficient, creates a criminal underclass, and quite frankly can be twisted to suit the ends of racists and bigots, and I have no use for that.

The free market should have nothing to do with taking away freedom.