ABOUT 35 years ago, America began turning prisons over to the private sector. The idea was that  private prisons would be better and cheaper than government run ones.

''The great incentive for us, and we believe the long-term great incentive for the private sector, will be that you you will be judged on performance,'' Thomas Beasley said on ''60 Minutes'' in 1984.

Mr. Beasley was president of the  newly created  Corrections Corporation of America.

Today about 9 percent of those behind bars in 28 states and in federal prisons - more than 128,000  people-  are in prisons run by the private sector. More than half of all  private prisons beds are owned by CoreCivic, the name for Mr. Beasley's company.

In addition to prisoners, about 70 percent of detainees are immigration and Customs Enforcement custody are in private facilities.

But private prisons have neither turned out to be neither better nor cheaper.

They have about the same recidivism rates as their government-run counterparts - nearly 40 percent. And the Government Accountability Office has concluded time and again that there is simply no evidence that private prisons are more cost-effective than public prisons.

Private prisons have come under tremendous political scrutiny because the more people they house, the more they profit.

Most corrections contracts with the private sector merely ask the private operator to replicate what the government is doing.

Given how entrenched the private sector is in American corrections, the private prison industry is here to stay. But there are ways to improve these institutions.

Currently they are rewarded according to the number of  prisoners they house. What if private prison contracts were structured so that they made more money if they treated prisoners humanely with policies that helped them stay out of trouble once released? 

Prisons exist to lower crime rates. So why not reward them private prisons for doing that?  Judge them on performance, as Mr. Besley said.

America doesn't use  performance based contracts.

But Australia and New Zealand are experimenting with these models. Two relatively new  private prisons  have contracts that give them bonuses for doing better than  government prisons  at cutting recidivism

They get an even bigger bonus if they beat the government at reducing recidivism among their indigenous  populations.

And prison companies are charged for what the government deems as unacceptable events like riots, escapes and unnatural deaths.

Although the contracts set specific objectives, they do not dictate how prison operator's  should achieve them.

''If we want to to establish a prison that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration, we have to give the private sector the space to innovate,'' said Rachael Cole, a former public-private partnership integration director for the  New Zealand Department of corrections.

''If we won;t give them opportunity to do things differently, we will just get back what we already have.''

The research publishing on Prisons & Humaneness, continues. The World Students Society thanks author and researcher Lauren-Brooke Eisen.


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