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Incarceration a Public, Not Private Responsibility
Charlotte Observer
Observer Staff
December 18, 2003

When federal and state governments began pondering the merits of privatization two decades ago, one potential for cost savings seemed to be private prisons. Without bureaucratic burdens, a well-run private prison company could build and operate efficient, modern prisons at a savings to the taxpayer and with better corrections performance.

But as a number of states have found, reality did not match the promise. North Carolina wisely avoided the temptation to embrace private prisons in a wholesale way, preferring to rebuild its prison system and experimenting in only two counties with private prisons. Those turned into disasters, and two years ago the state took over control of prisons run by Corrections Corporation of America in Bayboro and Spruce Pine.

At the time, a spokesman for the state said North Carolina was taking over prison operations because it was "better equipped and (had) better resources to manage and operate facilities."

Now a Charlotte-based prison reform group says the same company continues to be plagued by substandard prison conditions and financial problems and threatened by a national trend to shorter prison sentences. Grassroots Leadership, an activist group that long has opposed private prisons and the move in the 1990s toward longer prison sentences, questions whether the private prison movement can remain viable.

Its report, available online at, examines the national performance of Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America and concludes that its "pursuit of profit stands in the way of carrying out a core public function such as corrections. Rather than fulfilling the company's original promise to raise standards in corrections, CCA has been marred by scandal and allegations of mismanagement, mistreatment of prisoners, poor training of employees and manipulation of public policy."

Grassroots Leadership has a compelling point. In a democracy where law enforcement is the responsibility of a duly elected government, turning over responsibility for the locking up of citizens to a private company is an obvious conflict of interests. Such arrangements give companies more incentive to keep people behind bars. And when operations are driven by the need to show a profit and reward stockholders, any public interest in secure, well-run prisons becomes secondary.

There is an appropriate role for privatization. Some governments lease privately-built prison space. Some private companies provide a variety of programs and other services that meet the needs of correctional agencies and provide jobs.

But using for-profit companies to manage the day-to-day incarceration of human beings, even those who have broken the law and forfeited the broader rights of citizenship that free people enjoy, is not only wrong. As the Grassroots Leadership report concludes, it just doesn't work, either.

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