Beyond pragmatic considerations, philosophical questions have dogged private prisons from the start. They boil down to this: If someone violates society’s code of behavior, is it not up to government to punish the offender as society’s representative, and not some profit-seeking entity? As far back as 1985, M. Wayne Huggins, then the sheriff of Fairfax County, Va., asked, “What next will we be privatizing? Will we have private police forces? Will we have private fire departments? Will we have private armies?” Those questions have not disappeared.
Private companies house about 9 percent of the nation’s total prison population. But they take care of a much higher share of immigrant detainees — 73 percent by some accounts. Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, acknowledges that the companies have all too often fallen short. “It wasn’t their priority to ensure that the highest standards were being met,” Mr. Peña said.
ICE, he said, deserves some blame. “We set up this partnership with the private industry in a way that was supposed to make things much more effective, much more economical,” he said. “But unfortunately, it was in the execution and the monitoring and the auditing we fell behind, we fell short.”
Studies suggest that governments save little money, if any, by turning over prison functions to private outfits. And in 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department concluded that private prisons were in general more violent than government-operated institutions, and ordered a phaseout of their use at the federal level. Reversing that order was one of the first things that President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, did on taking office.
The Trump administration leaves no doubt that it will detain as many undocumented immigrants as it can and send them to for-profit centers. And to help make sure that happens, the companies spend millions on campaigns and lobbying efforts (not unlike businesses that sell cars, real estate or hamburgers).
They have thus far figured out how to prevail, a point noted by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. Ms. Eisen explored this in a recent book, “Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Her conclusion: “There is no reason to think the private prison industry will go away anytime soon.”