Traditionally, the focus of the prison experience has lay on the male experience in prison because until recently, men far outnumbered the female population in jails and prisons. Indeed, in 1970, there were only 8,000 women occupying jails in the United States. However, by 2014, that number had dramatically increased to 110,000, representing fourteenfold increase in the female jail population while the male increase went up only by four (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). It is no surprise then that Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that women in jail are the correctional population with the fastest growth. What is more, this growth is predicted to continue. While the incarceration rate for females grew by 8.25 per capita between 1970 and 2014, the growth has also continued at a rate of 3.4 percent each year since 2010 even while other populations (men in jails and prisons and women in prisons) started to shrink (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014).
The issue of studying women’s experience in jails and prisons is important because not only is the population exploding at an unprecedented rate but because the women who find themselves in jails and prisons are disproportionately people of color, poor, mothers, and managing a history of drug abuse; they are vulnerable to public policy that lands them in prison and they are vulnerable once they are released (The Sentencing Project, 2016). Additionally, it is important because often, these women find themselves in jail not as a result of an increase in crime but as part of a policing tactic referred to as “broken windows” policing (E.B., 2015).
“Broken windows” policing is a law enforcement approach that presents a renewed focus on arresting and prosecuting minor crimes in an effort to stop major crimes “Broken windows” policing is supported by several randomised experiments that each suggest that when police officers keep the streets orderly, people will behave better. This method of policing came to the fore during a period where urban crime was considered to be a serious issue in the United States and it is possible that these police tactics have helped reduced crime (E.B., 2015). However, they have also had consequences for poor people and minorities, particularly poor women of color, who make up a significant portion of the exploding population because once women are assessed a fine or fee by the county and they cannot pay it, they are then kept incarcerated; this policy is important because women are more likely to be poor (The Vera Institute of Justice; The Safety and Justice Challenge, 2016).
Additionally, there is the issue of motherhood. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 80 percent of women in jails are mothers and requirements of probation do not address the issues related to childcare, which means the policies that allow them to leave jail or prison may ultimately set them up for failure and many women who return to jail or prison do so not because they have re-offended but because they have failed to meet probation requirements (The Vera Institute of Justice; The Safety and Justice Challenge, 2016). Indeed, the family plays a dynamic role in the criminal justice system because just as parole systems are not designed for motherhood, there are serious links between childhood victimization and adult female lawbreaking, and as a result, a cycle can be created stretching across generations that involves young women, particularly young Black women, caught up in cycles of incarceration, abandonment and abuse (Maher, Dunlap, & Johnson, 2006).
History of Privatization
The history of private prisons in the United States began in earnest in 1981 when Florida became the first state to send the entire state prison system into private management – a firm called Prison Rehabilitative Industries & Diversified Enterprises Inc, based in Clearwater, Fl (Joel, 1988). It continued to take off when Thomas Beasley, T. Don Hutto, and Doctor R. Crants founded Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the most well-recognized and in many cases notorious private prison services (Pauly, 2016). In 1984, CCA began its work in the prison sector by taking over management from a Tennessee juvenile detention center and a county jail. It also went on to open the first privately owned facility in the United States – a motel it had remodelled in Houston specifically for housing immigration detainees. The rise of CCA was helped along by issues within the federal and state jail and prison systems; more arrests lead to overcrowding in public facilities (Joel, 1988). In 1985, two years after the company formed, a federal judged ordered the state of Tennessee to immediately halt admitting more inmates to its already overcrowded prisons. After the order, CCA offered to lease the entire prison system for a sum of $250 million; though, CCA’s offer was rejected (Pauly, 2016). Undeterred, CCA continued to pursue profit in what would become the prison industry. In 1986, CCA began to insist that it would be able to operate prisons that were not only larger but less costly (in terms of staff) than public prisons because of its combination of design and the adoption of electronic surveillance, and slowly CCA began to win contracts (Joel, 1988). Though, it would be Wackenhut Corrections Corporation who would earn its first federal immigration detention center contract in 1987 (Pauly, 2016).
What is important to note about CCA and other emerging companies is that these groups were not solely dedicated to bidding for government contracts; they also allegedly participated in the “model” bills produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to present bills related to the three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing legislation that would bring about a boom in the prison population in the 1990s; though CCA says it does not participate in ALEC despite co-chairing ALEC’s criminal justice task force (Pauly, 2016). Additionally, CCA and other business have reorganized themselves to raise more cash and pay less in income taxes by arguing that it is not in the services business but the property business and funnelling funds into a real estate investment trust, including the Prison Realty Trust, which allows CCA to go on a $447 million spending spree on prisons (Pauly, 2016).
With funds, influence, and the conditions to tempt the government CCA and its contemporaries were well positioned for market dominance in the 1990s, but whispers turned into investigations that found CCA’s prisons were woefully inadequate; Justice Department investigations found issues including poorly trained and inexperienced guards and facilities designed for medium-security populations but housing maximum-security populations. Later reports would issue a condemnation regarding the “disturbing degree” of abuse committed by staff in some prisons run by Correctional Services Corporation (CSC). Attempts have been made to ensure that private prisons are required to adhere to laws like the Freedom of Information Act in order to ensure violence in prisons is not hidden, but all laws have died at vote – all were opposed by the two largest corporations – CCA and GEO (Pauly, 2016). This is important because at the end of the day, these corporations may be private or public companies, but they are carrying out the work of governance and public values, and measuring their success and failures better identifies the challenges and opportunities in working with the private sector (Reynaers & Paanakker, 2016).
Since 2005, various investigations and lawsuits have alleges rampant violence at individual private-run and owned prisons including the preventable deaths of individual prisoners and an environment in an Idaho prison where the environment “relies on the degradation, humiliation, and subjugation of prisoners.” In 2010, the governor of Kentucy ordered all of the female inmates to be removed from a CCA-run prison after over a dozen women reported alleged sexual abuse by prison staff (Pauly, 2016).
The Reality of Prisons
According to Trilling (2017), private corporations manage systems on behalf of 29 states and the federal government, housing approximately 8 percent of the U.S. inmate population; though, that population is growing and expanded by 80 percent during the period between 1999-2010. These figures also do not account for the hundreds of thousands of detained undocumented immigrants who enter and leave privately run detention centers. However, private prison operators have been investigated for and sued over their treatment of prisoners and the use of harsh tactics, poorly trained employees, and discriminatory living conditions (Pauly, 2016).
Violence in Prisons
The rate of violence in prisons and in women prisons in particular is a problematic because violence within the prison itself often goes underreported and in private prisons, there are no official statistics that can empirically represent the rate of violence within prisons and one must instead rely on individual investigations carried out by both the Department of Justice and individual actors such as investigative reporters. Additionally, female prisons themselves are understudied.
Much of what is known of violence within prisons is in response to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). In a focus group interview carried out by The Moss Group, Inc. on behalf of the National Institute of Corrections, interviews were conducted in 12 jail and prisons; two were women’s facilities. The respondents in women’s facilities shared themes like the belief that sexual violence constitutes a serious issue and for staff, responding and preventing the violence is part of the job. The staff also believe that sexual violence is relatively infrequent but it is difficult to measure actual occurrence; rumors served as the primary source of information about sexual violence (National Institute of Corrections, 2009).
A Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) review also sheds light on the differences between private and public prisons. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) began a review to determine how the Bureau of Prisons should monitor contract facilities and assess whether the three contractors currently serving the federal system were meeting safety requirements. Upon analysing safety and security data, the OIG found that in many key areas, contractor prisons experience a greater number of security and safety incidents per capita than do BOP institutions and that the BOP can do more to monitor contract prisons (Office of the Inspector General, 2016).
These two reports sum up the greatest issue facing women and outcomes in contract versus government jails and prisons: there is general acceptance that private contract facilities are less safe and provide less quality, but the extent to which this occurs, how it impacts prisoners, and what can be done about it bar eliminating the contract system is unknown because there is little data to support change. Indeed, as Kim and Price (2012) point out, what appears to have happened is that capacity and institutional factors impacted the growth of the prison privatization system and that once it was adopted, it became institutionalized overtime. More data and a better evaluation system for private prisons must be developed to ensure that there is enough benefit to warrant their use.
Costs, Services, and Outcomes
One of the benefits seen by the government in using the private prison system has been in the cost control allowed by allowing private companies to participate in the system. This is because private prisons are different from using private industry in prison; it has less to do with using competitively priced products to provide services and more with using a competitively priced service as a whole (Robbins, 1987). From the 1980s, governments have shown significant cost savings, particularly in the face of the problem of overcrowding (Joel, 1988). For example, the U.S. Corrections Corporation charged the state of Kentucky only $25 per inmate per day when running the Marion Adjustment Center, saving the state $400,000 annually. CCA also saved Bay County, Florida nearly $10 per inmate per day when it took over Bay County Jail, saving the county $700,000 (Joel, 1988).
While costs are notoriously lower in private prisons not only in the United States but in other countries such as the United Kingdom and The Netherlands, these lower costs appear to come with a disadvantage (Alonso & Andrews, 2015). The American Civil Liberties Union, a progressive-leaning organization, argues that private contractors run prisons that are not only less safe but ultimately less effective during the reforming process (Trilling, 2017). This issue was reflected in the OIG report noted above that found contract prisons were more likely to feature more safety and security issue per capita than their federally managed counter parts.
General safety and security issues are not the only issues women face. The reality of the prison system is that it and its related instruments were designed specifically for men and potentially specifically to work against African Americans. For example, the assessment tools used by correctional facilities to determine issues like risk for committing crime, housing within the facility, and what services or programs the inmate should be eligible for are tested on men – not women (Vonkiatakajorn, 2016). As a result, the tools used do not assess the realities of crime among women, including the reduced risk of re-offending, which means women are excluded from educational, rehabilitative, and vocational programs once admitted to the prison sentence. What is more, a recent investigation has shown that these same tools are also potentially racially biased against people of color (Angwin, Larson, Mattu, Kirchner, & ProPublica, 2016). Both of these issues are incredibly problematic given the explosion in female inmates who are also disproportionately people of color: from the moment they arrive, the system works against them to assume they are more likely to offend then they are and to keep them back as a result (Vonkiatakajorn, 2016). As a result, women in private prisons may be doubly disadvantaged: not only are they in a prison that is less likely to be safe and secure but the prison system itself is not designed to approach women differently from men.
Private prisons are not obliged to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, which makes it difficult to pull wide statistics to compare public and private jails and prisons and women’s experiences in them; instead, researchers, scholars, and civil liberties activists are often left to investigating individual facilities, which is not conducive to providing a broad picture of life inside prisons. However, based on what is known about private prisons, there are some comparison methods that can be used to judge the experience of women inside these facilities.
First, one can look towards re-offending in prison. Women and women of color in particular are disadvantaged in this regard whether they are sent to a public or private prison; however, women remain less likely to re-offend than men and more likely to return to jail or prison as a result of a failure to a pay a fine or a violation of parole. It may be possible to measure the rate of recidivism between the two management styles to determine whether the management system is conducive to supporting women’s rehabilitation. A drastic disparity in recidivism would suggest that women with lower recidivism are more likely receiving the programs, services, and treatment required to re-enter the world.
Second, one can look towards time served by women in private jails and prisons compared to the programs offered to women in public jails. It is possible that by comparing the number of years of a sentence served within a prison out of the full sentence could point towards disparities in outcomes and serve as a starting block for assessing what aspects of the system are missing in the struggling party in order to begin assessing and correcting them.
Women are now imprisoned in greater numbers than ever before and the knock on effect has the potential to be a disaster for women, families, and communities. Although reports have found that private prisons are generally less safe and less secure than public prisons, it is unclear precisely what role this plays in women’s ability to navigate the prison system and find herself rehabilitated. What is known, however, is that the criminal justice system is not designed to deal with the unique issues women offer when they are arrested and sentenced: they are more likely to be abused, more likely to be poor, and less likely to re-offend, but the algorithms and tools do not account for this. As a result, more data must be gathered to begin to see whether private prisons are only exacerbating a growing crisis among women of color and begin steps to correct a system that may ultimately be failing us.