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How Private Prisons Exploit Inmates—and American Ideals

Lawyer John Dacey discusses how to stop a correctional system gone awry.


“Land of the Free” is a fond nickname for the United States, as it emphasizes the justice and autonomy that our laws claim to provide. Yet, with the developed world’s largest incarcerated population and a criminal law system often bound by legislation to send nonviolent offenders to prisons as a matter of policy, Americans are challenged every day to make the land of the free a reality.

Some operators see the millions of incarcerated Americans as a business opportunity, and many thousands of inmates find themselves farmed out to a private prison industrial complex that Abolish Private Prisons Executive Director John Dacey, in a talk at BC Law on March 2, claimed has little or no constitutional right to exist. The American Constitution Society sponsored the event.

Dacey talked at length about an extensive world of incarceration and correctional facilities that all together create a legal, administrative, and supervisory quagmire, ripe for abuse and exploitation by profit-seeking organizations.

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons is but one of four federal agencies with authority over the management of federally run correctional facilities,” he said. “In addition, there are prison management agencies in the majority of states, and many large counties have their own separate administrators.”

Many civil servants, Dacey observed, found that utilizing private corporations to manage prisoners was a useful way to remove some of their workload. However, he warned, “private prisons have a profit motive, and like the hospitality industry, return ‘customers’ are good for the bottom line.”

He showed evidence that private prison managers provide worse conditions for inmates than those in public prisons and make little if any effort at true correctional rehabilitation that could help inmates avoid recidivism.

Yet, taxpayer money provides their profits. Dacey described how the prison corporations use lobbyists in federal and state capitals to maintain their lucrative contracts. This creates what he called a vicious “prison-industrial complex that can partially be held accountable for the near exponential growth of prison populations over the past decades and that has stymied attempts by reformers to fix many of the broken elements of the justice system.”

The goal of Dacey’s organization is to attack private prisons on the most fundamental legal grounds. “I want nothing less than to challenge their right to exist on a federal constitutional level,” he explained, because the political power that the prison corporations wield requires that any hope of a successful challenge must be clothed in the language of rights and foundational legal language.

The private corporate model is a great generator of wealth and economic opportunity, but even founding father Adam Smith himself listed prisons among the institutions best left to government.

“Only after the perverse incentives and economic power of the prison-industrial complex are reduced,” Dacey concluded, “can a substantive conversation about criminal justice reform hope to bear real fruit.”