Unintended Consequences: Prison Fare

When privatization becomes a public detriment.

Read Time: 4 minutes

The Federal Government says that it will phase out the usage of private corporations that run prison sites. I'm a person that is a big believer in the private sector. I think that 90% of the time the private sector can, through nimbleness, creativity and innovation, achieve far better results than a cumbersome public entity. I think that "corrections," however, falls within the 10% that should be left with the government. In fact, I believe that the public interest and the economy are actually damaged by a private "corrections" system.

"Corrections"... call it like it is...

Let's start with the whole notion of our penal system as "correctional."  Fact is, we gave up on this some time ago. Maybe not purposefully or intentionally, but it just didn't work out that our jails were churning out rehabbed ex-cons ready to contribute to society and better themselves. The reasons for this are numerous and there is lots of finger pointing to go around. That's not the the purpose of this piece.

Rather, I'd like to take a look at why "corrections" isn't in the interest of the shareholders of the private prison companies. They are paid to perform a service that is primarily based upon maintaining a population to service (prisoners). The greater this population, the higher the income. The private incarceration system in and of itself has a vested interest in recidivism and actually increasing the criminal population.

I'm not saying that the men and women running these corporations are evil prison barons planted in high back leather chairs scheming on how to get more people in the system. I'm merely stating the fact there is no real incentive in the private "corrections" system to actually "correct," and in fact the opposite is true. It is a fatal flaw of the system itself.

Under a government run public system, the taxpayers essentially take the role of shareholders. And as the government doesn't pay dividends, the vested interest that the public maintains is safety. This is two phase: ensuring that dangerous individuals do not escape (which we're really, really good at), and working to ensure than when their sentences are completed they do not injure public safety by re-committing crimes (which we're really, really bad at).

It's a problem of will, not resources.

I think our issues may be less that of having resources to make a positive albeit not immediate change, but more of having the will do make it happen. And let's face it, it is very hard to stomach the idea of doing something "good" for many inmates.

The public at large generally treats jails an prisons as an oubliette. Slam the bars, turn the key, and forget about 'em. The problem is that the vast majority of inmates WILL get out of jail. So what are some of the things that can be done while serving their time?

There are the big things that we mostly half-ass do, like job training programs. The problem with this is that we're training these men and women for low-wage 21st century jobs rather than what the workplace actually needs now. Then of course there is the philosophical questions. Why should someone commit a crime and get workplace training for FREE when I have to pay out the wazoo to go to a coding bootcamp? And point well taken.

Maybe some small things will make a big impact.

So maybe we should start small and dig deeper into the data. Something that the public sector - with it's vested interest in public safety and fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers - can do that private corporations will not.

Economists will tell you that one of the drivers of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty is related to diet and lifestyle choices. Poor diet causes low energy, low immunity, obesity, diabetes, etc.

Take a look at what we're feeding these prisoners. It's crap. The food is cheap and low quality.

So... what do I care?

Yes, I get it. I'm not jazzed about giving rapists and murders a culinary experience. In fact, I loathe the idea. Like 99% of the rest of you out there, I really don't care what most of these people eat.

Until you get into the economics.

We're paying for the housing and care of inmates. That includes healthcare. And much of the time, it includes public assistance programs when these individuals get out of jail. The quality of the food in prison is such that it promotes detrimental disease state - particularly obesity and diabetes - that we end up paying for at an exponential level. Couple that with the fact that these conditions lead to the inability to be productive in a job, and we see federal and state treasuries lose tax revenue and actually have to pay out as health disabilities lead to public assistance.

So let me ask you this: What makes you hold your nose more... paying a little more for quality food for inmates on the frontend, or funding years of expensive medical care and disability assistance for them on the backend?

Again, in a privately-run system, this doesn't matter. It's about profit margins. In a publicly-run system, its about public safety and fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.

What should we do?

I don't know. It's a big question that may start with small answers that will snowball over time (like better quality food). Maybe instead of "workforce training" we should just focus 100% on education and soft skills (like computational thinking). We're not even that good at training law-abiding citizens for jobs of the 21st century, because quite frankly we don't know what those jobs will be. So maybe the approach is teaching more how to think and hoping once released the individuals can apply this for their betterment.

Curious as to your thoughts on this. The comments thread is open, or tweet me @timmask.

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