Privatization and Prison Psychologists

By Richard Althouse, Ph.D.
September 19, 2011

Should we privatize our prisons?” is a question more state governors are asking as the economy continues to bump along the bottom of recovery and they explore ways to trim state spending. Accounting for increasingly substantial costs, prison expenditures are an easy target for privatization consideration.

When discussions around this question start, public sector employees, perhaps having heard some horror story or other associated with privatization, wonder “If we privatize, what will happen to me?” and “What will happen to the quality of inmate services, specifically mental health services, we provide in our public sector facilities?”

A 30-year overview of privatizing America’s prisons and jails reveals that the answers are not as straightforward as the questions.

The birth of the modern era of privatization occurred in the mid-1980s when increased inmate populations — byproducts of our sociopolitical wars on drugs and crime and the “race to incarcerate” — outpaced available jail and prison physical, staff and economic resources. Between 1980 and 2000, local, state and federal prison and jail populations grew by 300 percent from 500,000 to almost 2 million.

Not surprisingly, in our land of competitive opportunity and philosophical pragmatism, a free market approach to solving our burgeoning inmate population problems emerged, and a number of corporations – Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut (now the GEO group) are perhaps the best known – alleging they could provide the same correctional security and inmate care services more inexpensively and in compliance with acceptable standards of care, offered to contract with government agencies to help reduce budget costs.

Both federal and state governments began to privatize some of their correctional needs in order to cut their corrections expenditures, and the modern era of privatizing prisons was born. As incarceration rates grew between l984 and 2000, the number of private correctional facilities operating in the United States increased from a few to about 150 (Sentencing Project, 2004). By 2005, at least 32 states and Puerto Rico had contracts with corrections corporations. Economic reasonableness aside, it was not an idea universally well-received.

Opponents and critics of privatization were and continue to be primarily opposed on ethical and moral principles. The most widespread moral/ethical argument was and still is that crimes against the state or country should be dealt with by the state or country, maximizing accountability to the taxpayers. Contracting with for-profit agencies to take on some or all of those responsibilities seemed to side-step the government’s vested ethical and moral social interests in pubic safety and corrections management.

Another popular and more practical moral fear was that the profit motive of private corporations would skew their attention to do whatever was possible to maximize profits first, possibly at the expense of public safety and reasonable inmate health and mental health care.

Such sentiment led to the question “Are ‘doing well’ and ‘doing good’ contradictory goals of privatization?” (Thomas, l993), and subsequent headlines like one in a late 1990s USA Today: “Everybody’s doing the jailhouse stock.” (Silverstein, 1997).

The “doing well” vs “doing good” distinction reflects the critical difference between public sector and private sector views of inmate populations. For the public sector, reduced inmate populations equal increased tax savings, so there is a vested budget interest in reducing inmate populations. Exactly the opposite is true for the private sector: Private corporations that contract prisons often earn money by the inmate/day. That is, the more inmates they have or the more days they have them, the more money they are paid.

Unfortunately, this distinction can lead to perverse outcomes, as illustrated by the recent Pennsylvania case involving judges being bribed by private prison companies to inappropriately jail some 2,000 or more children. (Monbiot, 2009). Thus, a third larger and perhaps more troubling social question was, and still is, whether a market demand for prisons necessitates a market demand for more prisoners in order to maintain profit levels. It is a reasonable concern with far-reaching implications.

Critics’ fears notwithstanding, the privatization of jails and prisons have continued at a rather steady pace. By 2010, 14 states had relocated at least 10 percent of their state prison populations to private-run facilities (Rohrlich, 2010). By 2010, inmates in private prisons reportedly account for 9 percent of the total U.S. prison population (The Economist), with the leading corporations being CCA and GEO group, followed by CRN. Recently, the governors of additional states are considering privatization (e.g., Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana and Florida). Clearly, despite ideological and practical concerns, privatization of U.S. jails and prisons is alive and well and here to stay.

When the rumors of “privatization” run through public sector facilities, how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from myth? In my experience, there is no easy process since opinions and facts depend on whether you talk with supporters or detractors. Blogs, articles and studies for each side are readily available on-line.

As for those public-sector mental health providers who may be facing a privatization process, there are a few likely outcomes. First, if you are offered a position with them, you will likely lose your union affiliation with whatever protections your union contract provided. Second, you will also likely lose whatever public-sector pension and healthcare benefits you had, replaced by whatever benefits package the privatizing group offers and possibly a larger contribution to your health plan and retirement plans. Third, your hourly wage may be reduced. Last, if you are one of a number of licensed psychologists at the facility, that number may be reduced as the facility employs less expensive mental health professionals.

The impact on the quality of mental health care of inmates can
vary. While it is tempting to think it would be lower, that is not necessarily a given.

So to return to the original question of “should we privatize our state’s prisons?” there is only one clear answer: “Maybe, maybe not.” As for the impact on correctional mental health care for inmates, and the quality of staff providing the care, the best answer is “it depends.”

My limited experience with correctional mental health services provided by private agencies has not been overly positive, but I would hesitate to generalize from them. If your facility is facing potential privatization, the best suggestion I can make is to engage in due diligence, research the history of the agency under consideration, discuss your concerns and questions with others who may already work in a privatized facility, and decide what you would like to do.

At this point, all ambiguity aside, and despite one’s political, moral and practical objections, privatization of U.S. jails and prisons is alive and well and may be on the verge of a surge in growth. In my opinion, being cautious and somewhat wary of the privatization process is the best bet, but not to the point of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

That said, being mindful that privatization is a for-profit business venture, the distinction between “doing well” and “doing good” continues to be a useful one.

Richard Althouse, Ph.D., is president of the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology. He is a licensed psychologist with 37 years experience in staff and management positions in correctional and forensic mental health settings in Wisconsin. He has published, lectured and provided training, expert testimony and consultation on a variety of topics relating to criminal justice policies. He is on the advisory board for the Mental Health in Corrections Consortium sponsored by the Forest Institute School of Professional Psychology. He may be reached by e-mail at:

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