The southern U.S. state of Louisiana has the world's highest incarceration rate. With about one in 90 adults in the prison system, the state is looking for ways to keep the facilities from overcrowding and incarceration costs from overburdening the budget. One solution is sending low-risk inmates to cheaper private correctional centers, an option that has raised the ire of opponents.
Prisoners report that the conditions of private prisons can vary greatly. For four years, Harry has been serving time in prisons operated by various private companies. He is currently serving time in the Pine Prairie Correctional Center in rural Louisiana. Harry says he is treated better here than in the previous facility.
“It was hard to go outside. They fed you in the dorm all the time, you know. We didn’t have no cafeteria to go to, so they brought the food to you. And then, when it was count time, you’d be sleeping, they’d wake you up out of a dead sleep and make you sit up,” said Harry.
Warden Terry Hines has worked in private as well as state-run prisons. He said private prisons ease the burden on U.S. taxpayers.
“I can do it cheaper every day per inmate than the state or the parish can do it every day. And for the facilities that have federal contracts, we have shown, we have proven we can do it cheaper than the federal prisons can,” said Hines, warden of Harry’s prison.
To keep the operational costs down, private companies have a lower budget for each prisoner than the state-run facilities, and their employees have lower wages. Mark, also an inmate at the Pine Prairie facility, said private prisons offer fewer programs for their inmates.
“[Private facilities] don’t have field work or a lot of them don’t have trades, trade schools, see. But in a state facility you can take up these trades, you can go work in the fields, you can go work in a barn, like, you can do all different types of jobs. But here jobs are limited,” said Mark.
Critics also point out that private prisons work for profit and therefore skew justice system priorities. Dana Kaplan, director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, an advocacy group, is worried about the poor incentives created by for-profit prisons.
“We begin to make criminal justice policies not based on what reduces crime or how do we save taxpayer dollars, but we base criminal justice policy based on what is going to drive the economic engines of the criminal justice system," said Kaplan.
Louisiana’s incarceration rate has doubled in the roughly two decades since the state's first private prisons went into operation.