Youth Incarceration and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Students explore the growing trend of prison privatization and concerns about youth imprisonment.

To the Teacher:

This lesson considers some of the issues associated with what has been called the "U.S. prison-industrial complex," with a focus on youth imprisonment and private prisons. The lesson is divided into two student readings. The first reading reviews the new revelations about youth in private prisons, then goes on to examine arguments for and against private prisons. The second reading looks more broadly at the rise of the U.S. prison-industrial complex. Questions for discussion follow each reading. 

For additional exploration of this issue:

On the U.S. prison population:

On the school-to-prison pipeline: 


Student Reading 1
Youth Incarceration and Private Prisons

The American prison population has exploded since the 1980s, and so has the use of privately run prisons.  In an investigative story in Huffington Post (published October 22, 2013), journalist Chris Kirkham reported on the abuse faced by youth in prisons operated by Youth Services International, a private company owned by James F. Slattery. The investigation also addressed a variety of problems linked to the rising trend of prison privatization.
Kirkham wrote:

In 2001, an 18-year-old committed to a Texas boot camp operated by one of Slattery's previous companies, Correctional Services Corp., came down with pneumonia and pleaded to see a doctor as he struggled to breathe. Guards accused the teen of faking it and forced him to do pushups in his own vomit, according to Texas law enforcements reports. After nine days of medical neglect, he died. That same year, auditors in Maryland found that staff at one of Slattery's juvenile facilities coaxed inmates to fight on Saturday mornings as a way to settle disputes from earlier in the week. In recent years, the company has failed to report riots, assaults and claims of sexual abuse at its juvenile prisons in Florida, according to a review of state records and accounts from former employees and inmates.

Kirkham notes that youth are increasingly being housed in private prisons, instead of traditional state-run facilities. He charges that Slattery's companies "have exploited lax state oversight while leaning on powerful allies inside the government to keep the contracts flowing."

Defenders of private prisons say that facilities run by market-based businesses are more efficient and cost-effective than publicly administered facilities. As the prison population has surged, states struggling to cover the cost have turned increasingly to private contractors as a a more affordable option. As Alexander T. Tabarrok, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, argued:

 More than two decades of experience with private prisons in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and elsewhere attest to the fact that private prisons can be built and operated at lower cost than public prisons.
Cost savings of 15 to 25 percent on construction and 10 to 15 percent on management are common. These are modest but significant cost savings in a $5.7 billion state system that continues to grow more expensive every year.
Private prisons not only have lower costs than public prisons: by introducing competition they encourage public prisons to also innovate and lower costs.

But critics say that private prisons are not as accountable as publicly operated facilities for the safety of prisoners. And, they say, these for-profit operations create perverse incentives to increase incarceration. For instance, some private prison operators insist that states ensure that a certain number of beds in their facilities will be filled, or else the state must pay the difference. As Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll wrote on September 19, 2013:

 Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full.
All the big private prison companies—CCA, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation—try to include occupancy requirements in their contracts, according to the report. At the same time, private prison companies have supported and helped write "three-strike" and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.
You might be wondering: What happens when crime drops and prison populations dwindle in states that agreed to keep their private prisons 80 percent or 90 percent full? Consider Colorado. The state's crime rate has sunk by a third in the past decade, and since 2009, five state-run prisons have shuttered because they weren't needed. Many more prison beds remain empty in other state facilities. Yet the state chose not to fill those beds because Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and CCA cut a deal to instead send 3,330 prisoners to CCA's three Colorado prisons. Colorado taxpayers foot the bill for leaving those state-run prisons underused. In March, Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, estimated that the state wasted at least $2 million in taxpayer money using CCA's prisons instead of its own.

While the use of private prisons has become increasingly common over the past decade, new reports such as Kirkham's raise serious questions about this trend.

 For Discussion

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

  2. Kirkham's report reveals instances of startling abuse suffered by incarcerated youth. According to the reading, how might the use of private prisons have contributed to these abuses?

  3. What are some arguments in favor of private prisons? Why have state governments increasingly used them?

  4. What are "occupancy agreements?" Why are critics concerned about them?

  5. Do you think the prison system should be managed solely by the government, or is there room for private prisons within the system? Explain your position.


Student Reading 2:
The Growth of the Prison-Industrial Complex

The growing use of private prisons and the problems of youth incarceration are part of a larger issue: the dramatic growth over the past several decades of what has been called the "prison-industrial complex." As Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported in an April 23, 2008 article:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
The United States ... has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)
The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England's rate is 151; Germany's is 88; and Japan's is 63.
The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

As state spending on prisons has skyrocketed, there has been less money available for other services, such as public schools and universities. This tradeoff has had a direct impact on youth. A May 2011 report by the NAACP stated:

During the last two decades, as the criminal justice system came to assume a larger proportion of state discretionary dollars, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education....
At the start of the recent economic downturn, states began experiencing limited ability to pay for their priorities. In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, prisons' share of the general fund grew more than any other category of state spending. For 33 of the 50 states, spending on corrections consumed a larger proportion of state general fund dollars than it had in the previous year, and general fund spending for K-12 and higher education decreased.

Although the number of young people being incarcerated has dropped in recently years, those who do find themselves in the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" face daunting life challenges. Serving time in prison derails a young person's education and makes it hard to find a job once they are released. For many young people, this can lead to a cycle of poverty, crime, and further imprisonment. The nonprofit research center Child Trends explains that:

Spending time in prison or jail can have profound effects on a young person's future. High rates of recidivism mean that many youth, once in the prison system, will stay there for significant portions of their lives. Up to one-third of incarcerated youth return to jail or prison within a few years after release. However, some positive life experiences, including employment, marriage, parenthood, job stability, and high school graduation are associated with a successful turnaround in young adulthood.
Youth who have been incarcerated experience diminished income in comparison with their non-incarcerated peers. In addition, they may suffer earnings losses of between 10 and 30 percent for up to ten years after their release. Economic hardship, in turn, is associated with lower levels of mental well-being, physical health, social attachments, and a lower life expectancy.

Those who have watched the rise of the prison-industrial complex with alarm believe that the extraordinarily high rates of imprisonment in the United States, coupled with a shift in state spending from education to prisons, reflect a troubling change in priorities that could have long-term implications for American society. This has led to growing calls to change local, state and national policies on prisons, and to create positive alternatives to youth incarceration.

For Discussion: 

1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2.  According to the reading, how do levels of incarceration in the U.S. compare to those in other countries?

3.  The NAACP argues that rising prison spending is undermining public education. What do you think of this correlation? Is public spending on the prison system a legitimate priority, even if it involves tradeoffs with other services?

4.  What are some of the consequences of youth imprisonment for the prisoners themselves? What experiences have proven successful in decreasing these negative effects?

5.  Have you seen any effects of the rising prison-industrial complex in your own community?

Research assistance by Yessenia Gutierrez.