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California bans private prisons (theguardian.com)
1952 points by anigbrowl 89 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 597 comments

I find it fascinating that private prisons draw such ire while the prison guard union draws so little, when the prison guard union has all the exact same incentives and is drastically more powerful.

California would have had legal marijuana a decade sooner except for lobbing by the union, they're a major force for mandatory minimum sentences and tougher sentencing in general.

This seems like a trivial easy-PR win for some legislators that does very little to meaningfully address the problems with criminal justice in the US. Private prisons are a tiny little piece of a much bigger problem and there's still a lot of real work to be done.

Going after public sector unions at all is extremely difficult. The most successful attempt to do so that I'm aware of was Gov. Scott Walker's in Wisconsin. And even he didn't go after the law enforcement unions. (It might be possible to split off the police unions from the prison guard unions, but it's not clear to me that it is.)

Law enforcement unions are one of the few American institutions with completely bipartisan protection. Democrats don't go after them because Democrats are pro-union. Republicans don't go after them because Republicans are pro-police. Furthermore, you really don't want to pick a fight with police unions. What happens if police officers and prison guards go on strike? It's against the law in many places, but if the police are on strike, who's going to enforce that? There is a very significant risk that you'd have to call up the National Guard just to maintain public order. And even then, how many National Guardsmen does California have? How many LEOs? And most of those National Guardsmen are not actually trained in law enforcement. In effect you would be declaring martial law. It's not worth it.

"Law enforcement unions are one of the few American institutions with completely bipartisan protection. Democrats don't go after them because Democrats are pro-union. Republicans don't go after them because Republicans are pro-police."

Perhaps your "democracy" needs more than 2 parties.

"What happens if police officers and prison guards go on strike?"

The American culture is very antagonistic. In democratic societies, which are less antagonistic, this would become a matter of new public consensus much sooner before they would go on actual strike (there are many forms of strike and some of them do not involve stopping all work, for example, work-to-rule).

"The American culture is very antagonistic. In democratic societies, which are less antagonistic, this would become a matter of new public consensus much sooner before they would go on actual strike"

Like France?

I think France is kind of odd because yes, they do strike a lot, but usually the public approval of the striking is quite high. So it is less antagonistic in this sense.

I live in Europan country with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripartism, and that's one option how to make things less antagonistic. There is lot of negotiations going on before the strike happens, and it mostly gets averted.

In France most of the strikes come from the public sector. And I'm pretty sure the public approval for the strikes depends if it affects them: if you'd poll people living in Paris about the current public transportation strike, I don't think you'd see a lot of support.

You are correct that the US needs a multi-party system. The lack of recognition/appreciation of the extent that the two-party system shapes and constrains every single public discourse such as this one is frankly amazing.

The current dynamic is akin to children playing one feuding parent against the other in a broken overly-adversarial marriage. You need a minimum of about 4-5 independent voices in order to facilitate civil public discourse.

> You need a minimum of about 4-5 independent voices in order to facilitate civil public discourse.

Has this been demonstrated through mathematical/statistical models?

Our politics are antagonistic, and that makes everything harder for sure. For that matter, so are our police!

But the US has relatively few strikes despite being so 'antagonistic'.

This is a really big problem in America and it needs to be addressed head on, regardless of how uncomfortable the consequences may be.

LEOs hold a sacred role of trust in our society - they maintain the potential application of the use of lethal force. With that power must come the most severe of guardrails, to which unionization is completely antithetical. Our civilian control of the military is internationally lauded, but we lack full civil control of our own law enforcement.

I think the way to go about this is to break up the law enforcement departments into smaller scoped independent roles with enough potential redundancy to be able to institute reforms via divide and conquer. Remake law enforcement from the ground up in this way, and deny the new institutions public unionization by law.

If the existing police unions strike, they must be dealt with as severely as mutinous armed forces would be; they should be subject to a court marshal form of adjudication with the same penalties that a military officer would face for desertion and endangering public safety.

Start building new parallel law enforcement institutions now, prepare for how to maintain civil order in the face of a strike, then start dissolving the old institutions. It’d also probably be wise for the FBI to maintain a comprehensive database of federal, state and local LEOs in case some go underground and attempt to undermine these efforts through domestic terrorism.

I would like to have an explanation why "going after the unions" is a thing and what it means in this context?

I can understand for example limiting striking by law or similar ordnances to uphold order and democracy. Is this all the parent is talking about?

But isn't a union basically a private organisation formed by citizens by their own free will?

What does it mean for a political organization, eg a party, to go after something like that? I mean from liberal/freedom of the individual POV.

I'm most certainly missing something important here and me being european/nordic shows ;)

It’s more a question of curbing their corrupting influence on politics. You might notice that the US has policies that result in mass incarceration, and that US police are far more likely than police in other countries to use lethal force. Part of this is because American law and policy is heavily influenced by police unions and prison guard unions, who favor their own interests over the public interest.

It’s also not purely a matter of private association. Often there are laws encouraging or mandating collective bargaining for certain public sector jobs. These laws are often what keeps unions in business, since those laws protect them and allow them to eg sign collective bargaining agreements that effectively require public employees to join the union (or at least pay dues to it) as a condition of keeping their jobs. It was the repeal of these laws that Gov. Walker faced political pushback for in 2011.

You are aware that public unions demand things from the government, making things difficult for said government. They consume a great deal of public moneys and demand special working conditions, usually above those received by employees in private companies doing similar work. And they give out money to politicians to make their concerns a priority. So if you care about other things than the pay of policemen, you'll have to fight the unions.

Isn't a private prison a private organisation formed by citizens by their own free will? :)

The unions and their membership have a financial conflict of interest when it comes to public public that impacts incarceration rate. Prison unions have, for example, lobbied extensively to keep various drugs criminalized in states where the public was going in another direction.

It's obviously a difficult subject with a lot of concerns to balance, but the posters here are just arguing that the problems of private prisons are not all unique to private prisons-- the employees of public prisons (and their orgs) have some of the same kinds of conflicts of interest.

The difference is that every prisoner in a private prison is an income source, so every law that creates fewer prisoners (such as drug legalization) is a loss of income. Are all public prisons run the same way? That is, are the prisons funded on a per-prisoner-per-day basis? Or do they get an overall annual budget, and then have to spend it as best they can to house the prisoners they're sent?

In the former case, harsh laws are good for them, same as the private scenario. But in the latter case -- fewer prisoners on the same budget -- more permissive laws would be an unconditional win. I don't know which way it actually works, just spelling out an unstated assumption that's being made upthread.

More prisoners means more jobs for prison guards which means negotiating leverage for higher pay, better working conditions, and better job security. If there were significantly fewer prisoners, there would be layoffs of prison guards, which would very much be against the interests of the union.

It might be true that, for some legislators, the fear of speaking truth to this particular power is one of public disorder. I don't think there's evidence to support that fear, but that doesn't mean it's not a motivating factor.

A larger motivating factor - and this is pure speculation - might be more closely related to angering an institution with such a capacity for unchecked initiation of violence (ie, that ones person, home, or family may be in danger of direct violence).

I doubt that it would escalate even to that, but you never know.

> What happens if police officers and prison guards go on strike?

> When New York police officers temporarily reduced their “proactive policing” efforts on low-level offenses, major-crime reports in the city actually fell, according to a study based on New York Police Department crime statistics.

> The scientists found that civilian complaints of major crimes dropped by about 3% to 6% during the slowdown.


I find it very malicious to just drop numbers like this. It gives the impression that you state a simple fact, while the reality is much more complicated than that. The studies on the subject require much more subtlety and statistical understanding when interpreting the results that a 2 line quotation to make a point.

There are a number of factors to take into account when giving credit to such studies:

- Is there enough observations to have statistically significant results? (i.e. do we have enough occurences of police strikes to really have meaningful results? can we have overwelmingly influencing factors not present in the studied samples: I guess it would likely highly depend on the city where the strike happens also)

- Did the sample properly allowed the isolation of the variable being studied against other influencing factors?

- What is the collinearity between the variables used for the regression? (i.e. if violence complaints are made on the spot, then less police means harder to fill complaints, it doesn't necessarily mean less violence)

"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" has a good introduction to the challenges of such studies, and discusses a bit the particular case of police.

Please don't introduce personal swipes like "malicious" into what's otherwise a fine HN comment. It usually provokes the person you're talking to into replying with worse; or if that doesn't happen, it causes other people to take your comment the wrong way (see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20960084). It also breaks the site guideline against calling names in arguments:


But it can be equally malicious to just drop generic potential shortcomings of scientific studies, without any attempt to figure out whether they apply to the specific study under discussion.

I don't agree with this comment at all. Skepticism isn't denying the claim or advocating an alternative one, it is promoting thoroughness and responsibility. The uninspected claim is quite a bit more dangerous.

This particular flavor of skepticism does not promote thoroughness and responsibility, in fact it promotes laziness: "Why read (or even skim) through the article when I can just state these five ways in which the article might be bad and therefore its argument void?"

I completely disagree. You believe skepticism is just as bad as blind trust?

If you think broad skepticism or criticism of a scientific study based on class characteristics is admissible (some statistical investigations are poorly conducted, so this one might be poor too), why not trust based on class characteristics (scientific articles in Nature tend to be really good, so this one might be good too)?

You're right, I don't think either of these options is better than the other.

>I find it very malicious to just drop numbers like this. It gives the impression that you state a simple fact, while the reality is much more complicated than that. The studies on the subject require much more subtlety and statistical understanding when interpreting the results that a 2 line quotation to make a point.

And yet such numbers are dropped all the time. I also do not see callouts for number drops being consistently applied. For example in political subreddits sees number drops without callouts when it supports the lean of the subreddit and number drops with callouts when it does not.

Criticism of science seems to be unequally applied, and given how important equal application of criticism is to science being reliable, it creates a reliability problem.

_qhtn 89 days ago [flagged]

Thank you for the last bit about Freakonomics- it lets everyone know it's safe to ignore you.

Ouch, please don't. We ban accounts that do personal attacks like this, and I don't want to ban you.


As an outsider reading this thread I couldn't help but laugh at this.

Galanwe said phry was "very malicious", which is actually and not just tenuously a personal attack. Do you plan to delete their comment as well? Interesting standards on HN.

Please don't interpret as "standards" what is most likely a simple case of us seeing one comment and not the other. We don't come close to seeing everything that gets posted here.

Edit: I've tracked down the comment you're referring to and indeed, no moderator saw it. I've replied to it here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20964408. In the future, if there's a comment you're concerned about, you should either flag it or email us at hn@ycombinator.com.

If you haven't checked specifically with us about a post, please don't draw conclusions about HN moderation—those are almost always non sequiturs. People usually jump to the idea that we secretly support the one side (where they didn't see us moderate) over the other side (where they did). That is reading patterns into randomness.

Edit: Also, could you please stop creating accounts for every few comments you post? We ban accounts that do that. This is in the site guidelines: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html. HN is a community. Users needn't use their real name, but do need some identity for others to relate to. Otherwise we may as well have no usernames and no community, and that would be a different kind of forum. https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20community%20identity...

I "attacked" pop econ bullshit, not a person.

"It lets everyone know it's safe to ignore you" is a personal attack. If you'd please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and stick to the rules when posting here, we'd really appreciate it.

> "It lets everyone know it's safe to ignore you" is a personal attack.

No, it's a general attack on anyone that cites horseshit.

Ok, I believe you that that was your intent. But "you" is a personal pronoun. If you use that pronoun and sling pejoratives, people are naturally going to interpret it as a personal attack, as I did. If you don't want to be read that way, the burden is on you to disambiguate that.

On contrast, your ad hominem argument is not appreciated by me.

_qhtn 89 days ago [flagged]

> ad hominem



> Ad hominem (Latin for "to the person"),[1] short for argumentum ad hominem, typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.

You failed at the "genuine discussion" part by citing pop econ horseshit.

The article you link to actually links to the original paper: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0211-5.epdf

It occurred to me that the result is not necessarily unexpected if it were due to under reporting (i.e. during the slowdown there was less opportunity to report major crime and therefore reports fell). The researchers discuss that in the paper. I don't have time to read the paper in detail and come to a conclusion one way or another, but I thought it might be of interest to people who might not otherwise click on an La Times link.

When police go on a “slow down” recorded reports to the police should naturally decrease.

> In our analyses, we examine how crime under-reporting may bias the results. We employ precinct fixed-effects to address time-invariant sources of under-reporting, such as communities’ varying histories of police distrust. We then model time-variant sources of under-reporting biases, such as those caused by the killing of Eric Garner and/or the heightened conflict between protesters and police. Model (5) in Fig. 3 controls for the number of community complaints reported in each precinct-week for misdemeanours and criminal violations. Assuming that time-variant sources of under-reporting are correlated across crime types, this model is robust to slowdown-induced under-reporting bias. While we cannot entirely rule out the effects of under-reporting, our results show that crime complaints decreased, rather than increased, during a slowdown in proactive policing, contrary to deterrence theory. Additional tests show the results are robust to specifications including controls for long-term trends in crime (Fig. 3 model (6)), lagged ‘Major crime arrests’ (Fig. 3 model (7)) and lagged ‘Major crime complaints’ (Fig. 3 model (8)).


It’s hard for me to see how they can control for police slowdown. In most cases, in order for there to be a complaint the police have to:

Answer the phone Show up Take the person’a claim seriously, encourage the person to formally complain Actually write up the complaint Actually file it

I’m really skeptical those things wouldn’t be altered by a slowdown, it wouldn’t be much of a slowdown, in my opinion, without altering these things.

Edit: I understand it might be in principle possible to control for a slowdown, if you had many many other slowdowns to use as data points.

That’s not the same as going completely on strike. It’s possible that police wouldn’t go completely on strike, but it’s also possible that the work stoppages or disruptions would affect something more essential than the “broken windows” policy. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what might go wrong even inside prisons.

There is a non-trivial risk of violent, even armed conflict if there really was a police strike and the National Guard was called in to restore order. That’s not something a state governor wants on their record.

> California would have had legal marijuana a decade sooner except for lobbing by the union, they're a major force for mandatory minimum sentences and tougher sentencing in general.

edit: Do you have any articles to recommend that would shed some lights on this matter ?

Do you have some sources ? (I don't live in the US, but I find the idea that guards somehow lobby fascinating)

Here is some background on CA prison guard union:

>...The CCPOA is deeply involved in a variety of political activities. Most spending is done through political action committees.[citation needed] Although its membership is relatively small, representing only about one tenth the membership of the California Teachers Association, CCPOA political activity routinely exceeds that of all other labor unions in California. The union spends heavily on influencing political campaigns, and on lobbying legislators and other government officials. CCPOA also hires public relations firms and political polling firms.

... >Lobbying efforts and campaign contributions by the CCPOA have helped secure passage of numerous legislative bills favorable to union members, including bills that increase prison terms, member pay, and enforce current drug laws.


>...ROUGHLY HALF OF the money raised to oppose a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in California is coming from police and prison guard groups, ...


So this isn’t directed at you in particular but I don’t understand this “do you have any sources?” for stuff that’s one search away. If it was some obscure hard to find information published in some journal I would understand it, but this in this case


And yet I see this constantly on almost every thread. What is it with HN and asking for sources on everything?

I totally see your point. That's why I added "I am not from the US" to signal "I don't live there, I don't know the in and out of this and I need the help of someone closer to the subject to help me grok it faster".

True, I could google for it but then I am on an hunt to discern the truths and the lies and to understand why someone lies or tells the truth to whom and how it is pertinent to the original request (and there's the bubble search, of course).

The thing is, I don't know - in that case - if it's obscure or not.

Plus, our comments aren't born in a vacuum. Parent likely has additional information or an outlook on the subject that I wouldn't find (or more likely find but likely dismiss because of a lack of context) in a 15 minutes google search.

Then, on the other hand, you actually have snipers around here who are quick to derail conversations by not participating, not giving information or sharing outlook and just shooting "Sources ?" and then never coming back to the thread.

You have to trust me on that one but I assure you I don't do that.

Now, asking for sources is most of time a given when someone makes extraordinary claims meant to shut an argument (eg: "X is bad 98% of time don't talk about X" when everyone was considering X safe from the get-go).

edit: I should have asked something like "Do you have an article to recommend that would shed some lights on this matter ?". The "Do you have sources ?" is a bit harsh and inquisitive, my bad.

edit (2): On the other hand, I clicked your link, without looking at the URL, thinking "ah cool, this person is telling me that in this case a simple google search will yield pertinent results. But all I got was a "fuck you, use google".

Wait, what?

Ideally, citing your sources should be done without being asked.

And, when asked, people want to know which sources you have used, not the ones they can find for themselves. So even if you think it's common knowledge, we want to see the base of your thinking.

> Ideally, citing your sources should be done without being asked.

Do you have a source for why that would be ideal ?

I do. Are you asking?

Strongly disagree. One of the great and unusual things about the HN community is that opinions are usually based on evidence. Asking someone to provide the evidence they are basing their opinion on is a great way to cut through all the noise on a subject you don't know well.

I have also noticed this trend, not just online, but also offline with friends.

While it seemed annoying at first, I quickly came to love the fact that this happens. I feel like this might be a natural tendency starting to be developed in the wake of fake news, and opinion-generating bot armies on the rise.

Better to ask for a source one time too many, than one time too little.

> This seems like a trivial easy-PR win for some legislators

Imagine a layperson read a news article about a complex topic in your field and instantly discovered a trivial easy win.

What are the odds they’d be correct?

> when the prison guard union has all the exact same incentives and is drastically more powerful.

Could you please provide me some examples? I figure if California's prisons were 200% of capacity, there's no shortage of work for the prison guards anyway.

> I figure if California's prisons were 200% of capacity,

Much of the concept is that the prison's are at 200% capacity because of the perverse incentives for the state (prosecutors, police, judges) to fulfill the private contract minimums.

Mandatory minimums and the 3 strike rule are suspected to be related to private prisons contracts.

I figure more people coming in also means more overtime benefits, eventually translates to better pension benefits too. Given most pensions are based on the compensations and benefits of the last years of service rendered.

Then of course there could be plenty of hidden stuff like more prison crowds means some one selling food(I hear animals eat better food than inmates) to the prison likely makes more money, and hence better bribes/commissions in the chain of people involved.

Eventually it comes down to profit per person. And they'd like to make it up on scale.

> I figure if California's prisons were 200% of capacity, there's no shortage of work for the prison guards anyway.

I'm not sure how/why you figure that, or how it's at all relevant.

I'm not sure how/why you figure that because "over capacity" != "will build new prisons / hire new guards". I.e., it's not at all impossible for there to be prisons that are over-capacity and also a decline in the number of prison guard jobs.

It's not relevant because the entire point of unions is to counter-act the effect of supply/demand dynamics on labor (see: "there's always another scab"). Just because there's "no shortage of work for the prison guards" doesn't mean they will lobby against changes to laws that might one day create such a shortage.

Or they could just work towards better working conditions? Unions dont really have the growth incentive private entities do. Prison guards are extremely far from running out of work, quite the opposite is true and their members also suffer under the poor working conditions of an chronically understaffed and underpaid sector. They are risking their life because politicians think overcrowding prisons isnt a problem.

I mean I get the initial point, some police unions are an especially vile proponents of an expansion into a police state, its just not really about working conditions. Its political lobbying. In Germany you can see it every time more competences for the police are discussed in parliament. You have some police unions giving legit feedback if someone bothers to ask them, how those competences are a bad idea and are not needed. And then you have speakers for other police union (with a catchy union name to seem more important) where you can see they have the right party membership and are looking for a career in politics. As a result you can see them in every news report that wants to bring across a certain message.

With private prisons, you can grift of off anti-private sentiment. But with prison guard unions, you just run into people's authoritarian streaks. There is a reason why Law Enforcement Officer's Bill Of Rights are sometimes expanded to include corrections officers.


Why would a union want more prisons? Surely the whole point of a union is to lobby for better pay and conditions for its individual members, I don't see what the incentive is for the union to create more prisons, to get more union members? Why?

More members equal more political power.

More members equal more funding.

More members equal more possibility of existing members to become senior.

Actually, in democratic capitalism, unions in private companies are always less powerful than private companies themselves.

The power of unions (for a certain sector) in a given society scales proportionally to number of people involved in them.

However, the power of private companies (certain sector) in a given society is proportional to revenue of that sector.

Since the power of unions in monetary terms can be bounded from above by total wages in the sector, we can see that this is always less than the revenue of the sector.

In other words, in capital intensive industries, unions have less relative power.

The point is, the "willingness of some industry to live" is the interest of more people than just employees of that industry. It's also all the people taking a cut one way or another, that is owners, rentiers and potentially all the people involved in providing assets for the industry.

The union in question is a public sector union, though, so it's not obvious how to apply your (correct, at least to my eyes) analysis.

I think for public sector, we have to look at it on the state level. Using the same analysis, in a democratic society, one vote has in theory more power than membership in a public sector unions, because with that vote you can decide more things than just wages of public employees.

I suspect the American culture of "being tough on crime" isn't really about prison-employee unions, but has historical roots in the colonization of the American frontier.

I think the American culture of "being tough on crime" was a reaction to the insanity of the 70s counter-revolutionary movements. In 1972 there were over 1900 domestic bombings in the US alone (https://status451.com/2017/01/20/days-of-rage/).

> Using the same analysis, in a democratic society, one vote has in theory more power than membership in a public sector unions, because with that vote you can decide more things than just wages of public employees.

...except when you can both be a member of a union and also exercise your vote.

I wasn't aware that in the USA joining a public sector union meant giving up your right to vote ;-)

No, the inequality always holds, your vote has always larger weight in society than your union membership.

I think it seems counter-intuitive to you but you cannot articulate why. I was also surprised when I realized it.

Or think about it this way: All citizens in democratic society are free to enter any number of associations that advocate for their interests. For example, unions. But membership in these associations doesn't "add up" to more power, in particular, it doesn't affect the "one person, one vote" principle of democratic elections.

I honestly have no idea what point you're trying to make here :(

> your vote has always larger weight in society than your union membership.

Yes, but the next step in your logical deduction is flawed because union membership does not necessarily dilute the power of your vote to signal other preferences (at least in countries with secret ballots and no proxy voting).

You're comparing these two things as if there's some sort of trade-off or mutual exclusivity. There isn't, especially in countries where politics is dominated by two parties such as the USA.

Here's how those mechanics tend to play out in the USA. A union voter leverages their union membership to make kings in the primaries. Then, after winnowing the field to a list of candidates who exclusively support their union's major priorities, union members are free to use their vote to exercise preference on other issues. That's not hypothetical -- it's exactly what happens in most US states with strong public sector LEO unions.

> But membership in these associations doesn't "add up" to more power

But this is obviously false when broadened to include all associations.

Politics in literally every modern democracy is dominated by associations called political parties. That's not an accident, and it's not like that status quo happened without opposition. A lot of politicians in the history of democracy have attempted to limit the role of associations in democratic processes, and they mostly failed.

I don't really understand the argument you're making. Maybe your logical deductions are bulletproof, but in that case, there must be something wrong with your premises. Because hundreds of years of extraordinarily compelling empirical evidence contradict your final conclusion.

Large associations of voters really do have more power than the sum of their votes. Maybe not "theoretically", but certainly "actually" and "empirically".

I interpret the effect you mention differently, that there is simply not enough democracy.

If the government takes more input from associations than from voting, I think it's a reasonable conclusion. (See also my comment about tripartism above.)

But what seems to me closer to the truth is that people simply heavily underestimate the power of their vote.

Now I'm even more confused because we're mixing positive and normative discussions :/

Parties are still highly effective at consolidating power in countries with many parties.

“Proportional to” hides a constant factor, so your analysis is wrong.

Different issues. People tend to dislike the fact that we charge prisoners outrageous rates for calls, etc.

And I don’t remember prison guard unions being the ones principally pushing for 3 strike laws. Most of those went through when it was politically advantageous to be backing them, unlike now.

the side effects of going after a union purely for this reason will need to be properly quantified before you can consider going down this road. removing private ownership of prisons is a no-brainer in comparison

The Union at least must disclose all of their contributions, right?


Seems like the poster meant that going after private prisons was the easy PR win, and that going after the unions would be more difficult, but effective at addressing the underlying perverse incentive structure.

All good points. We can now feel good about ourselves as orthodox liberals, and not think about the price we are paying for exactly the same problem.

Well for-profit prisons have been the target of pop culture for the last couple of years (e.g. John Oliver did a segment on them, Orange is the New Black, etc). People incorrectly assumed that since they were bad that it meant the public ones were somehow better (standard good vs evil thinking that plagues political discourse in the US).

Your claims require evidence.

Did you see this post as a good opportunity to just divert attention to anti-union ideology with your comment?

A union doing a shitty thing can be pointed out without it being anti-union.

Sure, but that's not what happened here ... the comment you responded to accurately described what did happen.

> Private prison companies used to view California as one of their fastest-growing markets.

This is such a bizarre and twisted sentence to hear without a hint of irony. It's like dream/nightmare logic except in real life. In 100 years private prisons are going to be a hideous stain on our history and this is such a huge step in the right direction that it really makes me proud to be living in California and supporting the state with my tax dollars.

Isn't it? Companies that probably lobby for stricter and longer sentences, looking at a populated state as a "market," with caged human beings as their product. It's the most absurd concept to me, and it's even more disgusting when it's put in such an innocent manner. "Private prison companies used to view California as one of their fastest-growing markets." It just gets more disgusting the more you look into it, and the statistics around incarceration in the US.

It is not just that the states are paying them to house convicts (or people accused of a crime), they can even use these people to do jobs for basically no wage. These companies are in the business of slave labor.

Just to throw it out there: the idea isn't absurd; it's evil.

You're completely right on that. Absolutely evil.

Will we still have private companies making money off of public prisons by offering different services? Will there still be individuals earning a paycheck by working at prisons? Both of these groups will have similar incentives as companies running private prisons.

Well done California. Hopefully this is a step towards abolishing the prison system.

I've entertained the idea of abolishing prisons in my head, but I can't imagine what we would do as an alternative. Suggestions?

I’ve heard ideas that prisons could be voluntary in a completely free society. First, a lot of people who have gone to prison for victimless crimes (using and/or selling drugs for instance) would no longer go to prison. Second, people who have committed violent crimes may choose to go to prison to “work off their debt” and show willingness to atone for their crimes. One could imagine that many employers, businesses and people generally would ostracize a person that would not be willing to go to prison, but on the other hand would be more willing to again accept that individual if he did go to prison.

Voluntary prisons? HN can be seriously devoid of reality sometimes

It's a wonderful libertarian fantasy and it's really tugging at my heart strings.

If it was nonviolent crime, then island where convicted can live with shops, houses, internet, trains and parks and local elected administration and cctv, but cannot go back to the rest of the world.

But if it is a serious violent crime, it should still be prison. Comfortable like in Europe or better, but preventing convicted from doing harm to others.

It should not be a punishment. It should be just an isolation. Separation of bad people from good people.

Yet more accurate language: bad-behaving people from good-behaving people. I realize some would say it‘s the same thing, but I always like to make the distinction.

Brb, I'm gonna go commit a bunch of non-violent crimes so that I can live on this island paradise.

You can go to that island voluntarily without committing any crime.

Are you describing Australia?

Warning: It's full of criminals!

On the flip side, they'd probably be more fun to hang out with.

A lot of the times we would just do nothing. Marijuana possession doesn't need punishment for example.

Otherwise there are a tonne of options from before prison became the norm. Community service, restitution, fines, public shaming, exile, corporal punishment, capital punishment. Some more acceptable today than others.

We still need a viable alternative that is both a deterrent and allows for rehabilitation and reintegration. I think things like prison, corporal punishment, exile, etc., are good deterrents but they're horrible at reintegration which is why prisons have such a high recidivation rates. On the other hand, community service isn't a high enough deterrent and flat fines disproportionally affect poor people.

  > I think things like prison, corporal punishment, exile, etc., are good deterrents but they're horrible at reintegration 
Not sure I understand. Corporal punishment doesn't have a problem with re-integration because no one is removed from society, and the whole point of exile is you will never be re-integrated into society. Only prison has to deal with the problem of how to re-integrate people.

Honestly, it's a bit of a red herring.. nothing is going to change from a criminal justice perspective. Less than 10% of incarcerated people are held in private prisons. But even more importantly, there are still so many private contractors / unions in the (public/private) prison industry that this ban won't really affect policies or outcomes going forward.. private interests will almost always exist in it that have perverse incentives that are contrary to what's actually good for crime and recidivism rates. [0]

An example would be the prison phones / video visitation industry. It's absolutely abhorrent what's going on there (removing in-person visits, replacing them with stupidly expensive phone calls that prisoners can hardly afford).. and yet public prisons / jails are using their services just the same. [1]

[0] - https://worthrises.org/picreport2019

[1] - https://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/state_of_phone_justice.h... Just look at how expensive those phone calls are :(

Personal experience tells me that in federal prison you get 300 minutes a month. You pay 26 cents a minute for long distance. There's legit virtual phone tech businesses that service the families of those incarcerated. You get it dropped down to 6 cents a minute.........

That 15 minute maximum includes a mandatory waste of 38 seconds of a recorded message telling the receiver that the person on the other end of the line is in federal prison. Additionally you waste approximately 1 minute during the call when a woman's voice reminds you all that the call was placed from federal prison. That's just the time the voice is talking.. it doesn't account for the fact it is seemingly random and derails any train of thought. All in all you waste over 1.5 minutes of the call...

Outside of Unicor you're screwed if you expect to make more than 20 dollars a month.

Oh and the email system ha ha ha haaaa you pay by the MINUTE to email. Imagine how many people can't type well at all? I spent so much time typing up messages for people because they couldn't type well. It's just pretty sad. Huge rip off for every one in a vulnerable position.

State prisons and jails, at least the ones I've been in and heard about (was an inmate for the better part of a decade) are much more expensive.

Federal prison was progressive in many ways compared to the states.

I do agree with you. The fact that people in the feds that have been in a state prison refer to it as easy street is deflating. The local places I have been are much worse. Manhattan/Charlotte/Hampton Roads are all really, really shitty.

Truth be told, if you have some minimum level of funds available and you are within regular travel distance of visitors the federal system is not bad at a camp or a low.

The existence of a straight-to-camp prisoner is a little silly to me. Camps should really only be a stepping stone down from higher security level on your way to release. The feds could save a lot of money by sending people with 18-36 month sentences to a modified RDAP program while living at a halfway house or home confinement. I fully believe every one in the federal system should be participating in an RDAP-type program to evaluate their criminal thinking and have better availability to skills training. Prison and Oren Cass' book "The Once and Future Worker" really influenced my thinking on what should be done to help.

Are you writing this comment from prison? What's the internet access like?

No. I'm writing it from my desk at my place of employment. I went to the privately owned halfway house in May of 2019. I get released to probation in October of 2019.

Internet access is non-existent without a cell phone. The higher up in security level you go the harder it is to get a cell phone. Camps at Fort Dix, Petersburg, Morgantown, etc. without a fence.. they're readily available for anywhere from 100-300 USD. A low that has an attached camp a little harder and more expensive. A low with a fence you're looking at maybe 1,000+ USD. Beyond that good luck. These are the shitty prepaid 30 dollar Android phones. Get caught with a cell phone you'll lose up to 200 days of good time and get an automatic shipment (through the horrible OKC facility...) to the next security level. Camp -> Low -> Medium -> High.

General rule at a camp is expect to pay 4x the street price for anything you want. Multiplier gets to be more like 5x-7x if it's something bulky and unusual.

I don't think that's a fair assessment. Just because it's not a huge revolutionary reform that doesn't make incremental improvements a red herring. These are just steps toward a better world.

I suppose I was being a bit strong. I just don't want anyone to get the impression that it's anything _but_ the teensiest of baby steps.

Is almost 10% of prisoners really only baby steps? I understand your point, they will be transferred to a new prison that will still have private interests, but to call it baby steps still seems exaggerated and defeatist

Public jails are doing the same things because companies that provide those services lobby them to do it. The FCC under Obama had capped the amount they could charge which was promptly undone with government changes.

This also ignores known stories such as an example where a judge had a stake in a private prison company (or was bribed outright?) And as a result was sentencing school kids to prison for things which probably needed detention at worst. And this went on for a decade.

The prison system in the US is not good to begin with. Largely because the citizens look at prison as retribution rather than rehabilitation. But the private nature only adds to and exacerbates issues.

Agreed, there's lots of work to do in public prison reform, too.

FWIW, the judges you mention are probably the two in the Kids for cash scandal [1]. They're currently serving sentences ranging from 17 to 28 years. Good riddance.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_for_cash_scandal

Yeah, the worst part is that these jerks would be out by now if they kept their mouths shut--they should rot permanently.

Thank God they opened their mouths, pissed off the judge overseeing their plea agreement who then yanked it, and got sentenced to about 3 times the jail time they would have had otherwise.

The problem here is corporate capture. These companies are raking it in with huge margins which would be super attractive to large amounts of competition... if competition could compete in a free market instead of buddying up with government officials.

Offering cheap phone calls isn't exactly rocket science.

> The FCC under Obama had capped the amount they could charge which was promptly undone with government changes.

We see this time and time again. There really needs to be a better protocol for this. It takes so much time and effort to make these laws, yet they can be undone in a heartbeat. It's an inherently flawed system.

> It takes so much time and effort to make these laws, yet they can be undone in a heartbeat.

The whole problem is that these were not laws. The FCC does not make laws. If it had been done through Congress, it would have been a more lasting change. But anything one president can unilaterally do, the next can unilaterally undo.

These things COULD go through a functioning legislature. Functioning being the key word. When you have one party who outright states that they will stop any and all work in the legislature just because Obama is president, and the citizenry continues to re-elect that party, what else do you do? What else SHOULD you do?

> These things COULD go through a functioning legislature

Which would just make them subject to switching when the legislative majority changed, rather than actually fundamentally changing the situation.

But I'm not sure either is really a problem: otherwise, bad laws would be impervious to change, too. If you want good laws, you have to keep electing good government.

True but there are multiple levels of law "inertia", and stuff passed through congress at one point carried more of it

Yeah, I've always thought the private/public prison thing is a bit of a red herring. Construction and maintenance companies get paid either way. Staff gets paid.

I think it makes more sense to focus on specific aspects of the criminal justice system rather than simply the private/public distinction. There should be standards for the pay and training of prison staff, security of inmates, quality of food and nutrition, medical care, etc.. It might be true that private prisons skimp on these things more than public prisons, but the standards are what is important.

Of course, this may very well mean that the best way to implement and enforce these standards is to have as much "public" (state) direction as possible in the development and operation of prisons, and I'm not at all against that if it is in fact the best implementation.

I partially agree. I think the ban is necessary in part because once we go down the route of private prisons we create massive economic incentives to push people into prisons and keep them there. These incentives will be on top of the incentives that already exist.

So I see this as cutting off a potential source of greater problems down the line.

But you're 100% right, there are already massive incentive systems in place that we need to overcome to achieve real change.

Frankly, I think a great first step would be eliminating prison guard unions or at least putting pressure on them (e.g. other unions refusing to recognize them).

Just a reminder that approximately 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States.

10% of 2.2 million is 220,000, and that is 220,000 more people than deserve to be a human sacrifice to a corporation and its bottom line.

You also need to consider that several people are processed through private facilities on their way to a public facility. CCA Youngstown and others hold prisoners before they are finally transferred to a federal facility. CCA Youngstown can melt off the face of the Earth as far as I am concerned.

Uh, no, that's 2.2 million (or possibly 2.42 million) more people than deserve to be a human sacrifice to a corporation and its bottom line.

"Less than 10% of incarcerated people are held in private prisons."

While this is true, that's still 133,000 people. An attempt to make the system more ethical for over 100,000 people makes a significant difference.

Well, you wouldn't have things like the Kids for Cash scandal as likely to occur.


yeah the govt seldom builds anything. it just contracts it out. A federal prisons may be staffed by govt. employees but otherwise privatized in every other respect such as construction, surveillance, and supplies.

I'm so happy about this. Private prisons are the scum of the earth. They're totally antithetical to a free society that values human life. They often lobby for minimum occupancy levels in law (effectively requiring by law a certain percentage of citizens to be marked as criminals). Any profit they skim off the top is money that should be spent rehabilitating criminals and making them functional members of society. Next up should be criminalizing charging huge quantities for prisoners to video call / phone call and the usurious fees on commissary.

I'd wager $1 in their pockets costs society easily 10X that.

[EDIT] Surprise surprise, when Canada experimented with private prisons, they found measurably better outcomes in public prisons [1] and took the private prisons back over.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prison#Canada

The public sector isn't any better.

The Price of Prison Guard Unions https://capitalresearch.org/article/the-price-of-prison-guar...

PORAC's contribution to California's prison crisis http://www.cjcj.org/news/5423

Classic to see the correct take get downvoted.

If anyone's interested in actually learning about the causes of mass incarceration, I'd strongly recommend John Pfaff's _Locked In_: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01L6SLKK8/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?...

In short: a) It's not the war on drugs. b) It's not private prisons. c) It's not sentencing laws.

You could get rid of all of those and America would still lead the "free" world in incarceration.

For the lazy:

Pfaff is convinced that aggressive prosecution is the biggest cause of over-incarceration. His argument here is compelling. He notes that while incarceration rates began to climb in the 1980s as a response to rising crime, those trend lines continued through the Nineties, even though crime was steadily falling. Why did that happen? Examining all the relevant variables (crime reports, arrests, charges filed, and convictions), Pfaff found himself looking squarely at the prosecutor’s office. As less crime was reported, arrests dropped proportionately, and among those who were charged with a crime, conviction rates held steady. But prisons continued to fill, because prosecutors were filing felony charges against ever-growing percentages of their dwindling arrestees.

From https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2017/02/20/john-pfaf...

I strongly agree, the u.s. criminal justice system needs a overhaul of zealous prosecutors who want to threaten non-violent offenders with felony convictions just to make a name for themselves. Greed is still the primary motive, a young prosecutor knows they can command a 6 or 7 figure salary in the private sector if the have a substantial amount of convictions under their belt. Yes, private prisons are bad, yes prison guard unions and police unions are bad, but prosecutors are equally guilty of the same greed and profit driven motivation... when was the last time you heard a story of a former prosecutor getting unemployment insurance or food stamp assistance? I'll wait...

Look at Philadelphia Krasner. There is recent controversy but his agenda of plea reform is a fantastic start.

The change in monetary system caused a cascade of despair.


More specifically here is the incarceration rate change when the monetary system changed.


PS. Don't downvote me if you don't know economics morons.

Something that isn't intuitive about our monetary shift is that as we debase the USD, we also debase the most desperate/marginalized of our population.

It is a feature of our system that is only accelerated by income inequality and labor price suppression.

The government isn't going to be lobbying itself to pass minimum occupancy laws.

The motivations are better. No one is saying it's going to solve world hunger, but it's a good first step.

> The government isn't going to be lobbying itself to pass minimum occupancy laws.

The government won't lobby itself; the prison guards unions may, however.

Just being government run is just one ingredient in a successful prison system.

Next you need to find good people that strongly want to accomplish the organization's goals. And who are smart enough to actually do that.

And you need to make sure those leaders have adequate funding and time to make the necessary changes. As well as having a legal system that is at least half-way working correctly.

So... in the U.S. we have 0.5/3?

The government itself, no. The correctional officers' union, yes.

Outlawing private prisons is probably a good step, but it's neither necessary nor sufficient to eliminate the vested interest in mass incarceration.

it's probably necessary. and i must ask, you've studied philosophy? that's the only time i see people talking about "necessary and sufficient conditions"

I have, yeah.

Thing is, private prisons are 10% of prisons. Which means public prisons are 90% of prisons, and so public-sector prison guards are at least 90% of prison guards (maybe 100% if they get the state to require collective bargaining in private prisons). That means a majority of the special interests are there either way. There is a conflict of interest with private prisons, but private prison owners are a small and not-very-powerful special interest compared to others.

Like, let’s talk marijuana legalization. I’m pretty sure fast food franchise owners are already a bigger special interest than private prison operators. They probably would be even if 100% of prisons were privatized.

On the other hand, the prison guard union has some real power. If they go on strike, you have to call up the National Guard and panic to get the prisons in working order before the prisoners start rioting and/or starving to death. If a private prison owner pulled that shit, it’s just one private prison owner, and regardless, they’re ruined for life. It only even becomes a remotely comparable risk if there was a single private prison monopoly across the whole state, whereas public prisons already have a prison guard monopoly in the form of the union.

none of that matters, there's a conflict of interest with private prisons, and they shouldn't exist.

That there are things we also need to fix with public prisons is an orthogonal issue. private prisons are clearly a problem. The idea of commercializing the locking up of human beings is horrifying from a moral perspective.

FWIW, I've never studied philosophy (unless you count formal logic, but we never talked about "necessary and sufficient conditions" in the two courses I took), and I use that terminology a fair amount. I'm not sure where I picked it up, but it certainly wasn't in philosophy classes.

The War On Drugs is a mechanism prosecutors use to get people into the system. We can't dismiss the changes in law brought about from a moral panic and how that affects who and how people are taken in.

Also, total numbers aside, the War on Drugs was tailored from the start to affect blacks more.

Then what is it?

Plea bargains.

Although the root fault is that a "guilty" plea costs the court less resources than a "not guilty" plea. If you wanted to solve this properly, you'd require that even if the defendant pleads guilty, there still has to be the full process of jury selection, presenting evidence and arguments (even if the defence's argument is "yeah, I did it") and deliberation (which, by design, gives twelve opportunities for someone to say "what the hell are we doing; this is clearly bunk" without that person being under threat of twenty-five-to-life for contempt of cop).

Edit: oh right, and you also need to make offering plea bargains (outside of state's-evidence cases) a twenty-five-to-life felony for the prosecutor.

According to the Amazon summary from the linked book:

"a major shift in prosecutor behavior that occurred in the mid-1990s, when prosecutors began bringing felony charges against arrestees about twice as often as they had before"

If you don't want to do time, Don't do the crime.

How does that work exactly when the crime is against a plant you use for personal medical reasons. Love it or hate it, medical weed is cheaper and easier to produce then most opioid alternatives. [i.e. morphine, codeine, oxytocin, etc.] And its safer to produce, process, and distribute to end users [consumers]. So grandma gets a felony conviction because she grew her medical weed in her backyard garden and now has 10-15yrs of her life wasted in a prison cell... How exactly does the math of justice add that up? Grandma grew 20 plants because she wanted to make her medicine and have enough left over to make some edible cookies... Grandma's of America union doesn't exist, grandma is left to the mercy of a corrupt justice systems that mandates minimum federal sentencing guidelines regardless of a defendants circumstances. The math doesn't add up, it's cruel punishment and unfair treatment of the law. I mean if grandma had a meth lab then yeah she deserves to "due the time" but for weed, no one should go to jail for weed... it's a complete waste of tax money..IMHO

How is the prison guard union and a lobby group specifically a problem of the public sector?

For all of its faults, I can't agree with you that the public sector is just as bad as the private sector.

They're a major constituant of the Democratic Party and you don't get through the primaries without their endorsements, so their positions have much higher weight than your ballot.

Private prisons aren't always worse: Florida study showing lower recividism in private prisons https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249718665_A_Compara...

When you see "Private Prisons Are The Worst!!!" check the studies to see if the groups are comparable; I know someone in the industry years ago and when they opened the first private prison in the state they were sent the worst offenders in order to try and break them, yet they ended up performing better than average for the state.

I understand that the prison guard lobby is terrible, but that's not the point. The question isn't "private prisons vs prison lobbying," it's "private prisons vs public prisons."

Prison lobbying comes from both.

It's not the buildings that are a problem, it's the people running them. That's either the owners for private prisons or the prison guard union for public prisons. If you say "private prisons are bad for <these reasons>" but there's just as many problems (and mostly the same) with public prisons, then focusing your hate on private prisons isn't working on the real problem. The legislature sets the standards for both and could actually fix the situation, they have both the responsibility and the power to do so.

I have to agree on this with you. The public sector isn't functioning as you would expect and opening this market can actually boost the state's economy and provide decent treatment to inmates.

That Canadian footnote is interesting, thanks. Apparent effectiveness of one experiment not withstanding, my intuition is privatizing prisons = bad idea.

I remember the news of Ontario shutting down their privatized project and taking it over. But I also remember the Harper conservative government later suggesting private prisons could again be in Canada's future.

I know there's lobbying going on (and probably more, now, as some of the US state gravy trains dry up) but does anyone know the state or politics of privatizing prisons in Canada?


Pretty sure private prisons were a Harper/Tory [1] project that got rolled back by the Liberals. I'd imagine that remains the same as the federal Conservatives have continued their relentless march right.

[1] https://www.straight.com/article-119340/stephen-harper-opens...

> the federal Conservatives have continued their relentless march right.

I did not notice such a thing. What do you think constitutes a "relentless march right", that the Conservative party is engaged in?

Conservatives under Harper started to align their policies more with Democrats and then with eventually Republicans. The gag orders on scientists, climate denial, private prisons, mandatory minimum sentences with a focus on drug crimes, slashing social programs, tightening up immigration and nationality rules, singling out muslims, and broad tax cuts without specific goals. This is the playbook of the US right / global far-right. The recent feud / split with the new Libertarians in Canada I think illustrates that at least a subset of the party was dragging everyone right, and eventually they had to break off. Of course trump is one step further right still so by comparison they appear downright reasonable. Then at the provincial level Ford speaks for himself haha.

I can’t imagine for instance a Joe Clark conservative jumping at these ideas but maybe it was always like that?

Fair enough, this was basically what I thought you meant; there are a lot of people in the "lol they is nazis because they is tories lol" camp and I worry sometimes that nobody is actually paying attention to the specific issues.

The one that really got to me was the F-35 purchase order, which they did not even try to explain to the public.

I hope the PPC can bring some competition and vigour back to our parliament, and get them actually talking about issues, and talking to their own constituents rather than to the fourth wall.

I don't agree with all of their framing, and the English is not native, but their platform documents actually name the laws and procedures that correspond to their legislative priorities, in plain language, and that gives me the warm fuzzies.

F-35 was such a nightmare lol. Definitely with you that competition is always good, I like that while the NDP isn’t likely to enter office any time soon there’s 3 or 4 (if you count the Greens) major parties in Canada. That gives me the warm fuzzies even if I don’t agree with all the policies of each.

Two parties rounds down to one.

I've been out of Canada for 15 years, so I missed the whole Conservatives under Harper. However, I think to be fair wrt comparing today's Conservatives to Joe Clark's Conservatives, the latter organisation doesn't really exist any more. The Conservatives were down to 2 seats when they merged with Reform Party. I think that's where to you start to see the drift to the right. They had to actively kick out the really extreme right wingers when that happened, but it's just not the same party at all IMHO. Seeing from abroad, I always got the impression that Harper's government was pretty much exactly what you might expect from a slightly toned down Reform party and it wasn't really a surprise to me.

Thanks for the perspective. I spent about half the Harper years abroad, and while I remember the Progressives Conservatives and the Reform / Canadian Alliance parties merging back in what, 2003? I wasn't really paying enough attention to politics back then to understand the implications. I think to your point the Conservatives in the merger basically marketed themselves as a more moderate Reform party.

It feels like there are just 0 incentives for a private prison to actually rehabilitate anyone. Perhaps private prisons could work if they were compensated based on recidivism rate or something

Call me cynical but the entire law system in the United States is punitive, there is zero interest in rehabilitation by anyone in power.

One problem you face in the United States that's not present in areas where there are focuses on rehabilitation (such as Norway) is crime culture. I grew up in a very urban poor area and gang life was something that people strove for. Getting into a gang was a goal similar to how working for a FAANG might be a goal for somebody from a different culture. And the gangs act as family replacements for kids who come from mostly dysfunctional homes.

The point of this is that by the time they hit their late teens and start entering the prison system, they don't see it as prison but simply a temporary time out from 'the life.' And when they get out, their time in lock up is something that's worn as a badge of honor showing how 'hard' they are. And of course since this culture starts to take a grip quite early, individuals that fall into this trap are generally going to be extremely uneducated. You're looking at adults with elementary or middle school level educations, and generally who have a very strong aversion to education in general.

And so how do you rehabilitate against this? When these guys get out of lockup their options are returning to the life where they're going to met with adulation and respect. Or they can try to go get a minimum wage job bagging groceries or asking if you'd like fries with that. Even look at things such as all the dead rappers. Many of these guys had millions of dollars and could have just retired into self indulgent hedonism on a beach somewhere if they wanted. But even those millions of dollars can't take them away from 'the life', until it eventually takes their life.

I'd predict here that we're going to be able to gradually see Sweden start to migrate towards a punitive based prison system as well. Before they had a negligible crime culture, but now they've entered an era where they're left engaging in hand grenade amenesties. [1] It's that sort of environment where rehabilitation gradually gives way to punitive responses.

[1] - https://www.thelocal.se/20181015/give-up-your-hand-grenades-...

Interesting Wikipedia page. Seems almost 20% of Australian prisoners are in private prisons! And 15-20% in the UK.

Obviously this is not a uniquely US issue another countries are expanding their use.

The five-eyes countries are all going down the tubes, not just the US.

Yet they're all very popular destinations for migrants - they haven't got the memo?

Just because somewhere is bad doesn't mean that other places aren't far worse.

I'm guessing, but I suspect it's hard to convince voters of the need to build prisons over other large capital expenditures (ex. hospitals, schools etc). Therefore it's easier to convince a private company to spend the money and operate it. Unfortunate, but could be the case.

Simple solution: don’t make building prisons an election issue.

Also, many politicians seem to like appearing to be tough on crime, and their constituents like that.

> They often lobby for minimum occupancy levels in law (effectively requiring by law a certain percentage of citizens to be marked as criminals)

I'm not sure that any actually do that. The ones I've seen turned out to be misunderstandings of the contract. The contracts were of the form that the private prison would be paid a base amount of $B to house up to C prisoners, plus an additional amount of $V per prisoner for each prisoner over C. C is typically something like 90 or 95% of the maximum capacity of the prison.

The contract actually makes more profit for the private prison if it has fewer prisoners, with the total profit going down for each additional prisoner up to C. Whether profit goes up or down for additional prisoners beyond that depends on whether $V is less than or greater than $B/C. If it is greater, than profit will go up as the last 5 or 10% of the capacity is used, but it will still be lower than the profit when the prison was at around 80 to 85%.

From the state's point of view the total cost is $B to house anywhere from 0 to C prisoners, and $B + (n-C) $V if the number of prisoners, n, is > C. From the state's point of view, $B is essentially a sunk cost.

This does provide some incentive to politicians to keep the private prisons occupied up to at least C prisoners, because if they have n < C prisoners, the per prisoner cost to the state is $B/n. If that is too high, the opponents are going to say the politician is spending too much on prisons. Increasing n lowers $B/n, so the politician might be tempted (and it also makes them look tough on crime). That's probably easier for the politician that trying to explain to voters that the total is $B regardless of many or few prisoners are there, and so per prisoner cost is not really what you should be looking at.

Also, note that this kind of incentive goes the same way with public prisons. A public prison also has a bunch of fixes costs, and so if you look at cost per prisoner you are going to see a lower cost per prisoner with higher occupancy because of those fixed costs.

They directly benefit from not reducing recidivism... Talk about a fucked up reward structure.

The first public academic to my knowledge to begin crystalizing the problem of private prisons and the prison industrial complex was Angela Davis [1] -- I first remember hearing her address this in a 1998 lecture at Northwestern.

Ruth Wilson [2,3] has worked for years analyzing and working to end the expansion and privatization of California's prisons, through both academic and grass roots efforts [4]. Her "Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California" [5] book is both accessible and rigorous, I highly recommend it. I am a bit shocked that their and foundational work were not mentioned in the piece.

There's a discussion between Davis and Wilson here [6] where they surface the mass incarceration/private prison issue, and detail the pathology of California's prison system.



[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTPjC-7EDkc

[4] http://criticalresistance.org/

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Gulag-Opposition-Globalizing-C...

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGPVPrJGXsY

Good riddance.

The whole premise of private, for-profit, prisons has always seemed deeply troubling to me. The focus of a healthy prison system should be to rehabilitate people and help them turn their lives around so that they contribute positively to society. That can take years of hard work by the individual, and require assistance from professionals (therapists, teachers, ...).

A for-profit company by definition seeks to maximize profits. Expensive rehabilitation is therefore immediately off the table, or given at the minimum allowable level. That is just not in the best interest of neither the individuals in the prison system, nor the rest of society.

The focus of a healthy prison system should be to rehabilitate

The operative word you used is should. You hold the view that the purpose of justice is rehabilitation, which is one theory of justice. Other popular views are deterrence and retribution.

From what I've observed about the United States, preferences for these competing theories of justice tend to fall along well-trodden political lines. That's why it can be so hard to make the legislative changes that California has just made.

The only indisputable effect of imprisonment is that it prevents preying upon the general public for the duration. Since criminal behavior markedly decreases with age, there is a rational argument to be made that persons who prey on others should be removed from society until such time as they are old enough to knock it off.

Unless prison radializes them and conditions them to integrate even less with society. Then it would have the opposite effect you desire, even if statistics painted the picture you want to see.

The purpose of imprisonment is to punish criminals by depriving them of their liberty. As a side-effect, society benefits because a criminal has been forcibly removed from visiting further misery on law-abiding people.

Imprisonment is and should be a deterrent punishment - it is not a support group.

One can both be in favor of abolishing for-profit prisons and also in favor of severe deterrent sentences for law-breakers. Profiteering private corporations naturally seek to maximise the number of prisoners in their facilities, because they are paid per inmate - so they have every incentive to ensure future "custom". This motive naturally conflicts with deterrent imprisonment - the whole idea is to forcibly prevent criminals from breaking the law again.

The purpose of prison certainly depends on the socity the prison is in. In Germany for example prison is certainly seen as a institution whose top-most goal it is to reform the inmate. Just punishing them and showing them that society doesn't care about them will in many cases achieve the polar opposite: it hardens them, makes them more dangerous and is therfore a punishment for the rest of society too.

And frankly if I had to choose between a reformed inmate who won't do it again but wasn't punished with cruelty and a hardened inmate who thinks he owes nothing to society I will always go for the former out of pure egoism.

It takes a certain transactional mindset to believe that harsher punishment result in less crime or that the suffering of the criminal will make up for the crimes commited. The lack of effectiveness for punishment to prevent future crimes is a well researched topic.

> the whole idea is to forcibly prevent criminals from breaking the law again

Unless you kill them, permanently incarcerate them, or lobotomize them, this is impossible.

The support group's intent is to help prevent re-offending after they are released.

Exactly. Statements like the commenter above are not universal truths. Certainly, some people believe the purpose of prison is rehabilitation. That is neither a universal belief however, nor the focus of our legal system. Many people believe the point of prison is punishment, just as the point of fines (like a speeding ticket, for example) are to make someone hurt financially, not to recoup costs (one person speeding typically costs the state nothing).

It can be both at the same time. A step of the reformation process is for the inmate to understand the need for the punishment. It doesn't mean that there is no punishment, just that blind retribution is insufficient to form a perspective for the inmate and society. Most inmates are not going to stay in prison for their whole life, so of obviously you try to maximize rehabilitation.

I do believe it to be a universal truth that a reformist approach is superior. Treating it as opposed solution is certainly short sighted.

> I do believe it to be a universal truth that a reformist approach is superior.

Exactly. This is your belief, and clearly not everyone believes it.

It sure could be both at the same time. Many people believe that too. It could also only be one or the other. Lots think those ways. There is no universally accepted truth here, and pretending like there is is not fruitful.

It's not just supposed to be a punishment and it's obviously not a deterrent. Rehabilitation and allowing for proper reintegration into society needs to happen or you end up with a former felon being stuck in a cycle of crime that they are forced into.

While I agree with your assessment of private prisons, I think we've begun to use the legal sure and imprisonment for things it wasn't intended for, such as minor vice crimes, based on flawed broken window thinking and making police terrified of the communities that they serve.

> The purpose of imprisonment is to punish criminals by depriving them of their liberty.

This is an opinion, not a fact. And you don't even back up your opinion with any data to support it.

I guess this cannot be backed up by data. It's a moral belief.

I thought the imprisonment was to make society safer? Forcefully removing criminals and using deterrent punishment is one way to try to do this, but it's not the only way.

Crime rates in the U.S. vs other developed countries, where rehabilitation is the focus, suggests rehabilitation is a much more efficient solution. See for example the crime rates in the Nordic countries.

Even in a lot of the more mainstream libertarian literature [1] most law enforcement and the justice systems are treated as exactly the type of stuff that doesn’t make sense for a market and should be handled by the government. This should apply to prisons for much of the same reasons.

Besides, most of these sorts of private/public relationships are unlike other true markets anyway with very little competition and only one customer to appease. We end up with a system with even more opaque responsibility/liability chains and encourage crony business deals.

Without any discernible benefit for the private nature and creating negative incentives that encourage more violence by correlating the success of an industry on the greater imprisonment of people, I can’t see any net-benefit for them to exist.

I tend to be a fan of markets in a practical sense but I wish we had clearer distinctions between these public/private operations that are spun as being more “efficient”. Plus a ton of people use these failures of public/private organizations to disparage markets. So it’s not doing anyone any favours to support these half baked pseudo market arrangements, even if you are pro market. In most situations we need purely public or market solutions. I’ve seen few examples of mixing the two that left us better off (the US health insurance ‘market’ is the shining example).

[1] as opposed to the more fringe absolutist anarcho-capitalist stuff ala Mises which does push for private everything

I agree, I've been thinking more and more that we need to spend some serious time on defining what is and isn't best handled by markets and drawing clear bounds around those areas. I'm positive that there are enough real world examples out there to draw up the general structure of a system that would incorporate what we've learnt over the past few hundred years. I feel like most attempts to do so so far have been rather dishonest, naive, and/or biased in one direction or another.

Creating the public/private distinction would also help solve some legitimate political issues and provide a much more consistent framework. Politics is mostly a game of compromise. You could give in on already gutted half markets, such as public health insurance, while using the leverage to push harder to keep most other industries open.

Ideology often gets in the way of providing the best solution to the greatest amount of people. I personally don't see much value in keeping a broken half-market like health insurance putting along in the name of "free markets". That just makes people blame markets for the failures of the public/private arrangements, which hurts them in other areas where it does make sense, where markets should be the default.

Others like private prisons and private military contractors makes the public lose trust in public institutions. Having a trustworthy justice and government system is critical for all markets to succeed.

Additionally a harder public/private distinction will put greater weight in these decisions and more responsibility. It's very easy for a politician to grab the half-measure public/private mix while pretending to appease both sides.

most law enforcement and the justice systems are treated as exactly the type of stuff that doesn’t make sense for a market and should be handled by the government. This should apply to prisons for much of the same reasons.

FWIW, one should also consider that in a Libertarian system FAR fewer people would be in jail in the first place - perhaps as few as none, since Libertarian ideology is not big on forced imprisonment in the first place. The typical Libertarian view of justice is rooted more in the idea of restitution for damages caused (where applicable) than "punishment".

Does Libertarian idea of a penal system not rely on the idea of discipline? I'm curious as the western world has moved on from the previous system where a crime was considered a personal offence to the sovereign. In which case, criminals were displayed in public and tortured. To a system where criminals are to be reformed and disciplined into a normalized individual. An eye for an eye seems to be a regression back to the systems before we had a state and where the penal institution was no longer a extension of politics.

At best, describing the (common) Libertarian approach to justice as "an eye for an eye" is over simplified to the point of absurdity. For example, the vast majority of Libertarians are opposed to State sanctioned executions for crimes, even in the case of murder or a crime where financial restitution isn't obviously applicable. Of course there are debates in Libertarian circles about exactly what the nature of restitution should be in cases like that.

Are they against capital punishment? That's different from rejecting disciplinary and penal institutions as a whole. Is there a reason why restitution is considered the only mechanism for punishment? How do Libertarians disagree with the idea that a penal institution can be a source of social reform as well as political stability?

Just to note, "libertarian literature" is a very broad phrase, and there is certainly plenty of reasonably prominent literature from both the left and the right that describes itself as "libertarian" and would also oppose the idea of centralized state law enforcement and justice systems.

On the right you've got some varieties of anarcho-capitalism that support systems of polycentric law that emerge from markets for law enforcement and criminal justice. On the left you've got anarchist movements like anarcho-syndicalism which propose a decentralized or federated system of social institutions that would be determined by direct action and direct democracy.

Yep, that’s another distinction I wish would enter public perception. Much like how socialism vs communism distinction was made to try to separate some of their better ideas from a long legacy of negative baggage.

I think libertarians would benefit from creating a clearer spectrum within their own community between the more practical (and popular) small government/minarchist side and the more extreme anarcho-capitalist privatize everything group. Too often they seem to be happy having these lines blurred. Plus I don’t think there is any contradictions or significant compromises in doing so. If anything pushing for pipe dream imaginary economic systems or half solution public/private stop gaps isn’t helping anyone.

I'm not attempting to prescribe a definition or usage of any terms. I'm simply describing a very common way in this these terms are already being used, and pointing out that your usage should probably be further clarified. If you wish to use "libertarian" to refer to something very specific, like perhaps the Libertarian Party in the USA, you're free to do so. I just think you should make that clarification, because people will understandably be confused by an unqualified usage of the term "libertarian." It is a term that is used very broadly by many different groups.

I also made no claims regarding the viability or merits of any of the viewpoints I was describing. That's not a conversation I'm interested in having in this context.

I don’t think I was disagreeing with you...

> The focus of a healthy prison system should be to rehabilitate people and help them turn their lives around so that they contribute positively to society.

Compare with this statement: "A well-run private prison system would be given financial rewards based on recidivism rates and internal violence, and could do so at less cost than state-run prisons". I suspect your response will probably be along the lines of "that's nice dear, but that's not the system we actually ended up with".

The alternative to privately-run prisons that actually exists in CA is not the healthy prison system that you have described, but is the state-run prison system: a revolving door into criminal training centres, with all the abuses you could expect from a system in which certain sets of people have near-arbitrary power over other sets of people.

> A for-profit company by definition seeks to maximize profits.

Yep, people who make money from a thing have an incentive for that thing to continue happening. Now, I challenge you to take a less narrow view of "profit", one that would include (say) a secure job that pays a good wage and comes with a cushy pension (and power over others for those that relish that sort of thing), and apply your reasoning to the state prison system.

Profit incentive is still there, but apparently it is only OK when it is California who profits. Also please do not forget who puts people in those prisons.

That's charitable. The incentive isn't just to get rid of rehabilitation, it's for the private prison to do everything in their power to ensure that their inmates are trapped in a never-ending cycle of crime and recidivism.

What is even scarier is an entity NOT motivated by profits that spends endlessly into a pit sucking resources away from solving bigger issues such as Climate Change, creating a high speed rail network, or educating children.

Lets not be against efficiency for the sake of political orthodoxy.

What is efficient for society is to focus on rehabilitation, which is not a "pit sucking resources".

That is a separate issue.

>A for-profit company by definition seeks to maximize profits. Expensive rehabilitation is therefore immediately off the table, or given at the minimum allowable level.

There's no reason a for-profit company wouldn't be able to provide a high quality service here if the customer actually insisted on (and paid for) such.

...and had some means to determine that it was happening.

I don't see a way where the incentives to cut corners vs the cost and effort of monitoring to deny the effects those incentives would actually work out.

Competitive capitalism is good at being efficient. It is NOT good at avoiding examples of negative results. Even if we say "here's the desirable target" and enforce it, the incentives will be that a large number of the participants will go below that desire in their efforts to maximize profits.

If we want them to be exceeding the targets for things like safety, recidivism, and humane treatment, we can't set incentives that are "profit = how little can you do", even WITH a minimum required.

I would recommend you do some research on this topic. Your giving talking points produced by mainstream talking heads.

When in fact, research points to private prisons being better at dropping incarceration rates through the programs offered at them. Therefore increasing ones chance at correct rehabilitation.


Interesting, literally every single link on the first page of the Google search for "private prison recidivism" appears to say the exact opposite.

- https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2017/may/5/report-says-...

- https://news.wisc.edu/study-finds-private-prisons-keep-inmat...

- https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/how-create-more-humane-pr...

I'm not sure one 20 year old study of 200 inmates from one state is representative of the population.

Besides that, it's inarguable that for-profit entities need profit to exist. You could claim that some for-profit prisons have lower recidivism but a non-profit entity will, on average, have more incentive to help inmates than one who's lifeblood comes from profits.

That paper is older than 20 years, and takes place during a short period of time in Florida, from a very small number of private prisons. A lot has changed since then, and the paper makes assumptions that are invalid with the current discussion, specifically the extremely small sample of private prisons (n=2?).

I don't think it's valid to draw concrete conclusions about the current crisis from the study you linked. There are far more variables at play than were studied in the paper, and those variables - such as racism, increasing societal inequality, etc - matter.

Also, reasons cited in that paper for the reduced recidivism are to do with the programs offered by the private prison. Are private prisons in all states / California allowed or incentived to offer similar programs? Do they choose not to?

These things affect the statistics, and drawing strong conclusions from that paper about private prisons in California today may lead you to invalid conclusions.

I think private prisons could work if:

- Convicts could choose whether to be sent to a public or private prison.

- Private prisons had financial incentives for post-incarceration behavior. Eg: If their prisoner recidivism rate after 3 years was 10% lower than the average public prison, they would get a 20% bonus.

Those changes would create enough competition and align incentives such that we could see some real innovation in the criminal justice system. Sadly, I don't think these sorts of experiments will ever be tried. If someone ever proposes such a system, they'll be branded a supporter of "private prisons".

A caveat, first: I think two of our larger-scale social issues are that incentives are often misaligned with the outcomes we actually want, and that we don't create structural room for innovation.

That said, I think this is still pretty fraught.

Incentives are just rules enforced with a carrot instead of a stick; we're just as likely to come up with bad incentives as we are to develop ineffective regulations and write loophole-ridden or misapplied laws. At sufficient scale, money tends to inspire a troublesome kind of creativity.

If the private prisons have sufficient profit motive and the problems they face prove tractable for data and bespoke or ML solutions, they'll analyze likely convicts as thoroughly as possible and do what they can to skim the most-profitable convicts off the top of the pool and leave public prisons with whatever is left. Maybe they'll just directly pay the prisoner or their family. Maybe they'll have a miserable as-bad-as-regulations-allow experience for uninvited plebians and a special experience to offer prisoners they want.

Will a certain incentive lead them to bribe judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, or witnesses to get (or avoid) prisoners? Would they do the same to keep a former inmate from being convicted again within 3 years of release?

And then some donation-funded corner of the think-tank ecosystem will endlessly torture the data to "prove" private prisons get better outcomes than public ones and shop boilerplate legislation to restrict public and promote private prisons.

And once the prisoners are within their walls, they'll be sucking up all of the data they can to hone their prediction of whether they'll reoffend when they get out. Will they use it nobly to target support, or to ensure the whoever the algorithms pick as bad apples end up in constant manufactured trouble?

Please notice how far afield you had to go to postulate bad outcomes. For your scenario to play out, the people running private prisons must commit some pretty egregious crimes. Can you imagine the chutzpah of someone who tries to bribe a judge?! That's practically instant, guaranteed jail time. Judges only get bribed when judges ask for bribes.

If you applied this same level of scrutiny to the existing prison system, I'm sure you could come up with far worse outcomes using far less speculation. For example: What's to stop state prison guards from torturing inmates? Answer: Nothing, because they have qualified immunity.[1]

1. https://www.newsweek.com/prison-inmate-qualified-immunity-pr...

Yes, sometimes there are corrupt judges. Note that the article doesn't say whether the owners of the detention centers approached the judges or whether the judges approached them. Both sides had to be evil (and know the other side was evil) for the scandal to happen.

If you read more into the cash for kids scandal, you'll see it was the tip of the iceberg. The level of nepotism in Luzerne county was absurd and the state did nothing to fix it. There were judges abusing their positions, using staff for personal errands, showing blatant bias against certain attorneys, fixing cases, etc. By the time the FBI was done, around a half dozen judges in the county were convicted of various offenses.

My takeaway from the whole thing was that judges have too much power and too little oversight. They're the one relic of the royalty/nobility system that we kept after the American revolution.

It's not that far afield (and yes, I'm certain we could; and I would love to), because the mandate is to make money. We can expect that, on average, they will do everything people do to make money.

Some of that will be corrupt.

It's not that I don't think incentives can play a role; I just wanted to emphasize how incentives, profit, and creativity can go awry.

With private prisons, lobbying is likely cheaper and more reliable than innovation.

I assume you didn't intend this in a sinister way, but exercise caution when speaking of experimenting with prisoners. Even with good intentions, remember that these people have limited choices, and will probably lack the ability to withdraw consent (assuming it was given in the first place).

Isn't my proposal giving prisoners more choice? Right now they have no choice which prison they are sent to. Are you worried that some private prisons might engage in sleazy marketing, convince convicts to choose them, and then treat them like crap? That can easily be fixed by letting prisoners switch after a certain period of time. Heck, the law could be that anyone in a private prison can at any time choose to serve the rest of their sentence in a state prison. That would ensure a baseline of care.

Also, I think the point about lobbying proves too much. If lobbying is so much cheaper and more reliable than innovation, why don't all companies lobby instead of innovating? Apple has billions of dollars sitting around. Why don't they lobby to make the iPhone the sole phone used by federal employees? Heck, why don't they lobby to get rid of the new import tariffs affecting their products? I don't think companies leave $20 bills on the sidewalk, so lobbying must not be as effective as people like to believe.

I agree that lobbying is bad, but my objection to it is that the government is allowed to pass laws that coerce people in such ways, not that some companies take advantage of that power. Basically: hate the game, not the player.

To both of your points of having more choice and lobbying: Market considerations matter.

Could you elaborate? I don't understand what you're getting at.

Apple can't lobby to make the "Official phone of the United States" simply because there are significant hurdles in place.

Government procurement is a very different beast than most people would be used too. Imagine an organization tasked to deliver the world, but while spending the absolute minimum, and without showing anything that could remotely resemble favoritism in the process.

That's Government. The supplier must be reliable, yet everyone should have an equal footing from which to have a chance to grab a contract.

It has to be cheap, yet must satisfy every requirement necessary to fulfill the procurement's intended purpose.

There must an always also be at least the appearance of propriety in all transactions, or losing bidders have every incentive to challenge the integrity of the decision.

Given the significant hurdles represented by having to jump through all the hoops in winning a Government supply contract, it simply makes more sense to focus mercantile efforts elsewhere where returns can be made with far less risk.

Prisons on the other hand, run into the worst of both worlds. Private prisons don't make money without convicts. So they might lobby for increased mandatory incarceration as a punishment for violation of new laws. You also have operations where prisoners are exploited as slave labor (which is explicitly allowed by the Constitution). Which if you really sit and think about it, makes the threat of increased incarceration as a result of profit-motive for the private prison industry that much more dangerous, as by definition, you are delegating people to a more abusable status in the eyes of the law.

Hard-on-crime stances notwithstanding (I'm not taking sides, just pointing it out), one really needs to take into account on what spending on prisons really says about our society.

Begone yee incarceree! Ye has't offended in the eyes of Man and God, and to the Pit do we consign'st thee til through suffering that debt is repaid!


Your offense has brought you here, being due to the threat to civil society your reckless and thoughtless behavior represents. Through the insecurity you suffer through here, it is our hope that you will come to understand the fragility of the civic construct, and come to see the error of your ways.

Vs. Yet still:

Clearly, our society has failed to incorporate/integrate you in a safe or constructive way. Here you must remain for a period until such time as it is deemed necessary to recompensense for the crime you have committed, or until it can be observed beyond a reasonable doubt that you no longer represent a threat to the civil life outside these walls.

A prison by it's nature does not function as anything else than a container or isolator of men and their proclivities. To create a profit making enterprise around that under the guise of "innovation shall make this system better" is foolhardy, seeing as the law, and punishments for breaking it often preclude any way to operate a prison or treat the offender in a "innovative" way.

The price of a man's years is set by the people already, that is. No private prison can innovate on that except by changing or altering the suffering they experience therein contained from the rest of society. Their Wardens' alone reaping the benefit of the custody of society's delinquents.

Furthermore, even the vaunted Market can be severely damaged by the "free labor" potential generated by prison inmates.

I just see far too much potential for negatives and far too few possibilities through which one could wave a magic wand and both dispel the wickedness of the alleged offenders heart (if it actually exists), and also extracting something resembling justice for the victims should it be appropriate.

This is incredibly easy to game. A bad actor would create a prison which focused only on convict selection, and fully ignored the bonus for recidivism and pumped people through. Prison not only needs to be ethical for individuals, but for the rest of society.

So you invented a loophole and then said it would be trivial to game if they can use that loophole. Prisons aren’t universities, there isn’t an admissions process.

I didn't invent the loophole, the parent comment did and I was pointing it out.

Why would private prisons be allowed to refuse specific inmates? State prisons can't do that.

They wouldn’t do it overtly but they’d develop some signal to dissuade undesirable inmates from wanting to go there.

> Private prisons had financial incentives for post-incarceration behavior. Eg: If their prisoner recidivism rate after 3 years was 10% lower than the average public prison, they would get a 20% bonus.

Then the best strategy would be to make sure that the prisoners die as soon as possible.

Are you suggesting that the private prisons would murder convicts soon after they're released? That's uhh... that's just a little bit illegal and people who commit murder tend to get caught and imprisoned for a very long time.

But let's assume that the private prisons could somehow keep getting away with murder. If anyone ever looked at the stats and saw that people released from private prisons had much shorter life expectancy, then convicts would choose state prisons. Then the private prison's revenue dries up and they go out of business.

> If anyone ever looked at the stats and saw that people released from private prisons had much shorter life expectancy, then convicts would choose state prisons.

No, they would not, because there is huge information asmyettry here and, and generally convicts have lost access to the sorts of publications with this info.

Of course they would. Prisons inmates are not isolated from information.

You're not too familiar with prison, I guess.

By and large, I would expect inmates to choose the closest prison to their family, regardless of quality metrics. What good does it do to know that some prison 2000 miles away has a really good meal program?

Which state is 2000 miles in size? This article is about state prisons.

Yes, they are?

Considering most inmates do not have access to the internet, do you expect the state to publish these stats in good faith? Inmates to trust them? Or do they just subscribe to print editions of The New York Times?

I guess I'm not sure if you're speaking in hypothetical or talking about inmates today. As the article is on California I'm assuming we're both discussing USA.

Inmates today. They talk and information spreads very quickly into prisons via family members and other visitors.

>Then the private prison's revenue dries up and they go out of business

Eventually. In the meantime ..say.. for about 10 years they make great money.

Incentives for this are all weird. You have literal customer lock-in, so you can promise anything and deliver nothing.

The recidivism metric would probably cause private prisons to try to avoid or eject worst prisoners, so you'd end up with a 2-tier system, where private prisons are hotels for "nice" people, and public prisons are a hell-hole for the rest.

Or maybe some prisons would run training on how not to get caught.

> The recidivism metric would probably cause private prisons to try to avoid or eject worst prisoners, so you'd end up with a 2-tier system, where private prisons are hotels for "nice" people, and public prisons are a hell-hole for the rest.

Yes, so you'd have to run the metric based on who was initially assigned to the prison. "Oh, John was assigned to your prison, but one look at his record and you decided to expel him? Well, you're still responsible for his recidivism, because you chose to not serve him. Oh, Jack was assigned to state prison, and you tried to encourage him? Well, you're not responsible for his recidivism, because you selected him."

But yeah, I agree in general that the thing about metrics is that they can be gamed.

> You have literal customer lock-in

You could let the prisoners freely switch to public while they're locked up.

The main issue I have with this system is that the "consumers" making the choices (the prisoners) of product aren't paying for the cost. So incentives aren't really aligned.

>> Private prisons had financial incentives for post-incarceration behavior.

I bet if you just paid the felons the same amount they cost to incarcerate, relocated them away from their peer group, and forbid contact, a lot of them wouldn't re-offend, like, ever. It's down to basically a combination of poverty and peer pressure (as in "just when I thought I got out, they pull me back in") most of the time.

This is sort of how exile worked in Russia before the revolution: nonviolent offenders were sent to Siberia and simply lived there. No hard labor or anything, no incarceration per se, but you couldn't leave, and all your correspondence was subject to review and censorship.

There's a tention between "paid per prisoner day" and "fewer prisoners come back to stay".

You could get a bonus for not getting "return" prisoners - but it'd have to be better than gaining life sentences (though in general, harder to compete in three strike legislations where you'd be incentivesed to allow prisoners to commit crimes in order to trigger three strikes).

Perhaps there's a way to pay for recovery - but if your business depends on there being prisoners, it's hard to see how you could motivate anything but an increase in prisoner population.

Certainly an end to prisoners would mean bankruptcy?

[ed: you might have a goal of lowering crime, and by extention prisoner population. A private prison, paid to house prisoners, would be commercially committed to the opposite; increasing the prison population.]

then we'd have all sorts of ad campaigns from private prison aimed at at-risk communities and people, promising all sorts of things while still lobbying law enforcement for arrest quotas.

Why do we need competition for prisons?

It is a nice idea, but I don't think many private companies are looking that far into the future to figure out where to best get their revenue. They can gamble on something that might not be totally under their control years out into the future, or just try to get more bodies in the prisons now. A ruthless "rational" actor would go for the second option.

There is an assumption that private prisons will perform better than public ones, and so far data does not support it. What great innovation came out of private prison system?

You we trying to optimise out the 'inefficient' government, by saddling it with much effort designing incentives and making sure they are not abused. You might as well run prisons yourself - publically.

No no no. This is exactly the mindset we need to avoid when addressing problems in our justice system. I am sorry but the entrepreneurial / venture capitalist mindset is not suitable here. Private prisons should not exist. Public prisons should be focused on rehabilitation, not retribution. As pro-capitalism as I am, the only future I see in your idea is abject market failure. We’re not talking about product here, we’re talking about human life. The market hasn’t been able to solve health care so what makes you think it’s going to be able to solve mass incarceration?

Further, this hypothetical system is ripe for exploitation. Aside from the potential exploits others have raised, have you considered the parallels to other industries such as defense contractors? Your idea creates an incentive and profit motive for crime. It’s the type of thinking that could literally result in corporations creating artificial mass shooters in pursuit of all the easy money that could be made. Sorry, but I think this is an extremely bad take and I actually worry about a dystopian future where this takes place. Pull on this thread at your own peril.

Isn't the primary issue anyone has with private prisons the same one we have with defense contractors: that they might, would, or do subvert the system to get innocent people imprisoned or their prison terms extended in the case of private prisons, or promote wars America doesn't want or need in the case of defense contractors?

What I mean is nobody really cares if prisons buy commercial toilet paper, for example. (As opposed to a hypothetical government toilet paper.) Nobody cares if the military uses the private industry for procurement of computers or whatever. We don't feel the government should be creating its own version of all private industry products.

But when the prison itself is private - and likewise when defense contractors themselves are developing, shopping around, and selling new weapons only to the military, that the military didn't ask for - then suddenly there is a new player in the budgeting process.

Ideally few or no people are committing crimes. If the prisons have excess capacity, free beds - good! But if it's a private prison, how can they fill those beds? Well, by working to imprison more people.

This is the incentive structure that people don't like about private prison.

In the United States it's de facto "illegal" to walk around while being black: there is a high chance you will eventually be jailed on non-existent charges. (And accept a plea bargain, for example, rather than risk a really long term.) I'm a white guy. If I had lived the exact, exact same life, done every single action exactly the same (and this is true of other people reading Hacker News) I likely could have been jailed for no reason at all, just for walking around while being black. That's a fact. I probably would accept the plea bargain I'm offered, too, and resolve to work for change later. What am I going to do? Tell the judge and prosecutor (who often is scored based on how often he gets a conviction/plea) that he and the system are racist? How well will that go over? Will it get me my freedom? Or will it get a vindictive term from the judge. I'd rather just sit in prison for a few months and then avoid the cops better next time, I think I would decide. (Rather than risk a 20 year prison sentence, again, totally innocent of anything. A few months' plea - which my counsel would probably advise I take - is nothing compared to that.)

So why are innocent black people jailed? Well, to fill prison beds, apparently. That is one of the reasons that people don't like private prisons.

We don't want anybody to be "selling" prison, so we don't want prison to be a private enterprise. It's quite straightforward and is something most people understand very easily.

> So why are innocent black people jailed? Well, to fill prison beds, apparently. That is one of the reasons that people don't like private prisons.

Utter nonsense. Black people are jailed for being black in America because American police are racist and American legislators are racist and American media are racist and American prosecutors are racist and American judges are racist. And then, because of this, black people in America have learnt that police, legislators, media, prosecutors and judges are best avoided.

If private prison operators have an incentive to get more people to serve more time, then they're not going to pick black people because they're just smart business people and black people represent an untapped growth market. If they've actually done anything to encourage oversentencing, they only reason they picked black people is because them and everyone around them are racists.

fair comment. if you increase quotas for number of arrests then the racist cops will just pick random black people to arrest because they're racist, can make something up, and a racist judge will believe them.

Ah I see you've never implemented an incentive program before.


Every metric you could possible think of can be manipulated in ways you can't imagine. But give private companies the incentive and someone in them will figure it out.

IMO the only way to run things like prisons is to hire people that strongly care about the public good to run them. Hire people who want to run a good organization that accomplishes the organization's goals. Which for prisons should be rehabilitation and safety.

Please don't use uppercase for emphasis.


If you look at my comments throughout this thread, you'll see that I am aware of the potential for incentives to have undesirable higher-order effects. Many people in this thread have suggested certain concrete undesirable consequences, and I've replied to them.

In contrast, you are putting forth a fully general counterargument to any incentive structure. But clearly financial incentives work in many cases. It's what sports teams use for their athletes and coaches. It's what businesses use for their leadership teams. When we need the best people possible to perform at their best, we tend to pay them money and pay them more money if they meet certain goals.

> IMO the only way to run things like prisons is to hire people that strongly care about the public good to run them. Hire people who want to run a good organization that accomplishes the organization's goals. Which for prisons should be rehabilitation and safety.

Yes, ideally we'd have every job staffed people who are wise, kind, competent, and hard working. But we don't have nearly enough of such people and we judge traits inaccurately. So instead we have to make do with less effective but more practical methods. Financial incentives are one of those options.

> a fully general counterargument to any incentive structure.

A general counterargument is worth considering. Any incentive sufficiently powerful to draw forth extra resourcefulness in its legitimate pursuit is quite likely to also draw forth extra resourcefulness in its illegitimate pursuit.

> It's what businesses use for their leadership teams.

This is may help your case considerably less than you think if you look closely. Various forms of the principal-agent problem pop up all the time. Pink and Kohn have also forwarded some research suggesting that extrinsic incentives have diminishing returns or run counterproductive in some cases. And Goodhart's law is a proverb in the business world for a reason.

Aligning incentives is still important, but getting optimal performance is rarely as simple as tying rewards to a goal. Hell, half the time defining optimal performance is a project.

And when the underlying issues involve social safety and significantly curtailing someone's liberties via imprisonment (and the already fine tension between them), it's an especially tricky topic.

How exactly can a private prison "illegitimately pursue" having a lower recidivism rate?

Simply handwaving it away with incentives being gamed seems to complete ignore that you are suggesting that there will be widespread systemic corruption of the entire nation's judicial system. Perhaps the general counterargument could really take a moment to focus on the details.

Prisoners not being convicted of more crimes down the line seems to be a no-brainer in societal benefit, or does the line of generalised argument presented here think that's not the case with some more handwaving about optimal outcomes?

For instance, they could teach prisoners how not to get caught.

EDIT: what does it mean that I love thinking about ways of gaming systems like this?

> what does it mean that I love thinking about ways of gaming systems like this?

That you might be a good security researcher? From https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/03/the_security_...:

> Uncle Milton Industries has been selling ant farms to children since 1956. Some years ago, I remember opening one up with a friend. There were no actual ants included in the box. Instead, there was a card that you filled in with your address, and the company would mail you some ants. My friend expressed surprise that you could get ants sent to you in the mail.

> I replied: "What's really interesting is that these people will send a tube of live ants to anyone you tell them to."

> How exactly can a private prison "illegitimately pursue" having a lower recidivism rate?

Picking prisoners would be one obvious way.

Now, you can say "well, we'll just make sure they can't do that." That's fine; the overarching point here is that you can't simply set up an incentive system without thinking about the ways it can be gamed, among other unintended consequences.

Though: do you know that you can make sure prisons can't do that? Is it legal to forbid them a choice? Can you set up a system for distributing prisoners that's resistant to capture or influence? It's a little bit like saying "we'll just make sure our software is secure."

> you are suggesting that there will be widespread systemic corruption of the entire nation's judicial system.

I'm far from the only person suggesting that private prisons corrupt the criminal justice system, but yes, that's part of the argument.

Some people concerned about the issue believe that industry lobbyists work to back criminal code changes requiring more prison sentencing. Others believe in milder phenomena like judges internalizing lower costs of imprisonment and therefore using more of it in sentencing. The former could be described as corruption without being even slightly illegal. The latter might not even be recognized as a form of corruption, but it'd be a systemic issue unless you think imprisonment is underused in the US.

> In contrast, you are putting forth a fully general counterargument to any incentive structure. But clearly financial incentives work in many cases.

Yeah but I think the big question here is - in what cases?

There's a lot of evidence to suggest financial incentives are in some cases, bad.

Take for example, the financial incentives given to people for running a private prison. Bam.

If "gaming" the system means less recidivism, that sounds good to me.

Prison ships to Australia were originally paid per passenger that boarded in Britain. The death rates were horrible, in the double-digit percentages. When the transport ships were instead paid per passenger that _arrived_ the death rates went down phenomenally.

And someone like you might say: "omg these prison ships gamed the system by saving lives!!!" Yes, that's what we want to happen.

You can lower recidivism rates by reducing rates that people are released. Or, for that matter, by providing legal assistance to ex-cons who reoffend. Not sure people who want to see real criminal justice reform would be happy about either...

(edit: not sure what the downvote is for, but I want to be clear that I'm not for gaming the rates in this way. I'm merely saying we don't want to incentivize lowering recividism rates at the expense of everything else)

What we want is not just less recidivism but fewer people going to prison in the first place. If you're getting paid for lower recidivism rates, you'll want to increase the rate of people going to prison one time, not zero times. It means you might lobby for the kinds of laws that would make that happen or you might bribe judges to get the kind of inmates you want (which might mean people who are possibly innocent or would really be better off with probation or house arrest).

Good. We can only hope prisons would try to reduce recidivism in order to make more money. That’s the point.

It’s a fantasy to think you can simple “hire people that care about the public good”. If that were the case the government wouldn’t be filled with incompetent red tape slingers vying for nothing more than a good retirement.

Sure, but zero incentives don't work either, for obvious reasons. Neither of which implies there aren't better or worse options along the continuum.


Yep. Thinking that you can just design a good incentive structure and be done with is hopelessly naive.

> IMO the only way to run things like prisons is to hire people that strongly care about the public good to run them. Hire people who want to run a good organization that accomplishes the organization's goals. Which for prisons should be rehabilitation and safety.

Thinking that you can just hire people that care about the public good is just as naive as thinking that you can just devise the right incentive structure.

On the second point, I think folks are rightly dubious about the effectiveness of incentives broadly[1]. There's also some hilarious historical examples of incentives backfiring or having unwanted side-effects (like the Cobra Effect [2].)

More broadly, I don't think it's that easy to think that private prisons can even work well as a solution, regardless of whether they should be allowed to exist as a matter of public policy and ethics. Consider one summative look at this issue provided in this evaluation[3] -- it's dubious whether they're even cost effective, one of the strongest pro-private-prison arguments there has been in public debate, and how there's much better alternatives than the kind of perverse incentives bundled with private prisons, like re-evaluating whether parolees should be allowed in public housing, and providing more transition housing so when sentences are complete, inmates aren't forced to spend even more time in prison because they don't have an address to go to.

[1] https://hbr.org/2009/03/when-economic-incentives-backfire [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobra_effect [3] https://publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu/live/news/2304-privat...

I'm not sure why but your comment was hidden as dead. I vouched for it because… WTF? It's a totally fine comment. Anyway…

I agree that existing private prisons are wasteful and cruel, but I think that could change if they had different incentives. Right now, convicts can't choose between private or public prison. That lack of choice means that private prisons have no incentive to be better than state run prisons. Private prisons usually charge per head. If no prisoners want to stay at the prison because it's a hellhole, revenue dries up and they go out of business.

I'm familiar with the cobra effect and ways in which adding financial incentives can cause counterproductive outcomes. I'm not particularly worried about that happening with private prisons. Financial incentives backfire in two cases:

1. When they fail to account for higher-order effects. (As happened with the cobra bounty in India.)

2. When they replace social incentives. For example: If a friend asks me to help them move, I'll probably oblige. But if I show up on moving day and I see some paid movers helping, I'll resent that. That's basically what happened with the day care that charged for being late. Previously, parents would show up on time because they felt a social obligation (guilt). When the day care added a late fee, that guilt disappeared because the transaction moved from the social realm to the financial realm.

I think the motivations of wardens and guards in both private and state runs prisons are pretty similar, and I don't think they're motivated by social incentives. For them, it's a job. They want to minimize the amount of stress at work, and that usually means minimizing the amount of violence prisoners do towards one another. Adding some financial incentives isn't going to solve all the problems with prisons, but considering our existing recidivism rates, I seriously doubt it will hurt.


Why should we care if someone makes a profit if we get the outcomes that we want? The profit is not what is evil, the poor conditions and poor outcomes are. If incentives are effective at producing good outcomes it would be stupid to not use them.

p.s. It is possible to disagree with someone without being a moralizing asshole, you should try it sometime.

because the incentives are bass ackwards. These companies lobby for laws, and there's no way they're lobbying for less prisoners.

If the incentives you proposed were enacted, there would be no private prisons because any company that tried would go bankrupt. (Unless you mean that the state would cover any costs incurred by the private prison, in which case you'd just get prisons run by grifters.)

California's state-run prisons have a recidivism rate of 65% within 3 years. A 2% rate of conviction over 50 years is lower than the population of non-convicts. It's not possible for any organization to accomplish that. Also, the company would have to wait 50 years for payout. Even if that payout is with interest, 50 years is beyond the time horizons of most governments, let alone companies.

> How about a structure where they don't make any profit whatsoever (state only covers costs) unless, say, 50 year recidivism rate is below 2%?

You're creating incentives for the prison operator to make sure prisoners are never released.

It's private prisons, not private judges. The prisoner would be released when they'd served their sentence.

If someone was up for parole, you could very easily discover bad behaviour on their part, so they would have serve the full sentence.

How's that? Waddayknow, they committed a new crime while in prison. Guess they have to stay a bit longer now. Sad.

Crimes committed while in prison count as recidivism.

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