Prisons: The Wrong Place to Privatize


The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4) recently upheld a California Federal District Court ruling that ordered a reduction in the state’s prison population from 156,000 to 126,000, because the conditions were so overcrowded and bad, they violated the Eighth Amendment ban against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Although the California-owned prison facilities were designed to hold a maximum of 80,000 prisoners, the state system was operating at about 200% of capacity. In some situations, up to 54 prisoners shared a single toilet. Prisoners were also being denied minimal health care, as medical conditions were untreated, or ignored, and suicidal inmates were held in cage-like booths.

While conditions in California’s facilities were unnecessarily cruel, they were probably not unusual. Throughout the country, other states also have overcrowded substandard conditions.

Most lawyers would agree it is not easy to sue a state government, and it is even more difficult once state functions have been privatized. Unfortunately, the trend towards privatization has been growing. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature recently reduced the State Dept. of Corrections staff by 1,751 workers, and voted to privatize even more of their state prisons.

The worst problem with privatization is the Bill of Rights was created as a check against the conduct of the government. It was not written to control the behavior of private sector actors. Right-wing judges interpret the 8th Amendment ban against Cruel and Unusual Punishment as applicable only to the government.

If the California prison situation had been operated by private contractors, the prisoners’ case would have been much more difficult, since the defense attorneys would have argued the 8th Amendment simply did not apply.

Some government functions should never be privatized. Prisons are one of them. Anyone in the custody of the state must be treated humanely, but there is no guarantee of such treatment, once the state is not involved. States should not delegate the job of incarceration to private sector profiteers, as they would certainly cut financial corners even more than states like California.

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2 Comments to “Prisons: The Wrong Place to Privatize”

  1. thanks for the education as to inmate’s lack of rights by privatizing the system. has the ACLU taken this up yet?

  2. Thanks for your comment Kathie. I don’t know what the ACLU has been doing lately, but with all the conservative judges appointed by Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, and a Republican dominated Supreme Court since 1972, I am sure they have their hands full.

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