Privately-run prisons | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

Privately-run prisons

/ 12:28 AM October 20, 2016

Yes, there are privately-run prisons in the United States. They will soon see the end of their days. The idea has been tried, and it didn’t work. Might the idea have worked in the Philippines’ biggest, the New Bilibid Prisons, which the inmates practically run like it were their private fiefdom?

But I am getting ahead of myself.


Not quite as out-of-the-box as Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature that sent the literati abuzz is the Nobel for economics that went to Oliver Hart, a Harvard economist, and Bengt Holmstrom of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two were awarded because of their study of business contracts, a subject matter that seems so mundane it would make Dylan’s oeuvre sound so far out in the ocean. The two men’s research conclusions about privatization and its implications have brought to light the desirability or undesirability of such arrangements.

Hart’s studies included prisons, education and even garbage collection. Are these services better or worse in government hands?  Are these better or worse if handled by private companies?


Several months ago the US Justice Department announced that it would phase out privately-owned and -run prisons for safety concerns. In our neck of the woods not many know that many US prisons are run by private parties; the common knowledge is that only the government runs the prisons. Whether badly or very badly there is no choice.

A US news report said stock prices for GEO Corp and Corrections Corporation of America, which are known to be “the largest publicly traded companies in the for-profit prison industry” are plummeting because of the justice department’s announcement that it would let its contracts with private prison companies expire.

The report also said the decision applies to federal prisons which account for a relatively small percentage of US prisoners. The majority of prisoners are in state-run prisons.

There have been exposés about these privately-run facilities described as a “private, for-profit prison racket.” Last year, Mother Jones magazine ran an article written by its reporter who worked as a guard at a private prison for four months. Read “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery” by Vicky Pelaez for Global Research.

What is going on in Philippine prisons has been headline news these past weeks. Senate and House inquiries “in aid of legislation” (or “in aid of persecution,” as some say) have at least revealed—but only partly—the terrible rot in these facilities. The massive trade in illegal drugs, prostitution, wanton disregard for prison rules, powerful inmates lording it over and living luxurious lives in the facility—name it. Our jaws dropped when an inmate boasted at a House hearing about his five-star-hotel amenities, holding concerts, bringing in truckloads of beer, etc., making tons of money in the process.

Only after we had picked our jaws off the floor did we manage to ask: How long has this been going on? Of course we had seen the trailer of this sometime last year. But only recently did we get to see the full movie, so to speak, the plot more expanded, with blood and guts spilling outside prison walls even as we speak.

Privately-run prisons piqued my interest because these had to do with a Nobel laureate’s study of business contracts and also because the Nobel came at a time when the US Justice Department just announced that it was allowing its contracts with at least 13 private prisons to expire in the next five years. I could not help thinking about our own prisons which became “privately run” by the inmates while we were sleeping. Who were sleeping on the job?


In this era of privatized public services (water, for example) and having seen the difference between government-run and privately-run, give or take some downsides, privatizing prisons is an idea to try. Laugh me out of the room for saying it, but in this woebegone country where nothing (in prison) has worked, a failed scheme might.

Same for the vaunted new drug rehab facilities. Can the government run them well?

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TAGS: Bob Dylan, Jail, New Bilibid Prison, Nobel Prize for Literature, Prison, privatization, US
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