"Prison Guard" by sonofgroucho on flickr

"Prison Guard" by sonofgroucho on flickr

Treatment of Prisoners by Guards in Private Prisons

Today we open a new chapter in WhyIHateCCA’s illustrious history; our first guest author!  So without further ado, I present this article by Allison Gamble of Forensicpsychology.net.

Treatment of Prisoners by Guards in Private Prisons

Prisons have begun to become more privatized over the last few decades. One reason for this increase in privatization is the explosion of the prison population, which has undermined states’ ability to address the construction and maintenance of public prisons. Another factor is the emerging belief that a free market system with private owners will perform better than public institutions. However, issues with how these private prisons run are a public concern and fuel a particularly strong debate.

One recent example further illustrates this point. In Hawaii, prisoners were beaten and abused by employees of the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that contracts guards for prison facilities. In July 2010, five prisoners were threatened with death, kicked, and beaten by the guards. This single example highlights starkly the issues with private prisons, specifically with the professionalism of privately contracted guards.

In terms of forensic psychology, why do these abuses occur? Jenni Gainsborough, director of Penal Reform International, says many corporations take shortcuts in training prison guards. Prisons are no place for novice security workers, but require well-trained staff that are highly educated to respond to the types of situations common in a prison. Workers need to understand prisoner’s rights, appropriate self-defense procedures, and need to be able to communicate with prisoners in a fair and effective manner.

In addition, private guards are often paid poorly and lack the power of a union to protect them from labor abuse. Private prisons tend to be understaffed, so guards must work longer hours to boot. This saves private prison corporations money, but also pushes inexperienced guards to psychological and financial extremes while on the job. Any worker who has to work over 40 hours per week for relatively low pay in a tough environment like a prison stands a fair chance of reacting inappropriately to prisoners.

However, this issue isn’t simply one with guards’ shortcomings.David Miller makes the argument that when they are well trained, private prison guards are able to attend to the needs of prisoners quite effectively, even reducing prison violence more effectively than their publicly-employed counterparts.

Miller cites research that shows private prisons have more liberty to choose who they want to have as inmates. Although choosing prisoners may seem like an odd concept, as private entities these prisons can reject potential inmates if they don’t fit charter or contract stipulations. A public prison must accept any inmate the state assigns, a major cause of overcrowding and an intensely violent atmosphere. Miller’s conclusion is that the lower populations of private prisons and better-trained guards lead to more satisfied and cooperative prisoners. In short, a private prison may be able to provide more for prisoners.

However, other facts counter this assessment, specifically the rate of private prison guard satisfaction and violence in private prisons. Private guards have a turnover rateof over 40 percent, more than twice that of public prison guards. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are 54 percent higher in private prisons than in public prisons, and prisoner-on-staff assaults are 49 percent higher.

The efficiency of private prisons is also questionable. An audit by the state of Arizona found the state’s private prisons were spending only $2.75 less per prisoner per day than public institutions. This, despite private prisons’ low wages and other cost-cutting techniques and billions of dollars in contract earnings. If private prisons do not save the government money, are they worth it, especially considering the controversy surrounding them?

Even when similar conditions are found in prison quality and guard experience, opponents of private prisons argue the privatization of a public good goes against the value of a facility that is supposed to rehabilitate or put away dangerous criminals. These institutions are meant to be controlled directly by the public through the states, not by a private company with shareholders and a profit motive. The issue of privatization will not be resolved any time soon. The public debate will continue over matters of justice and what belongs as an exclusive responsibility of the state.


Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.