As justice systems across the U.S. cope with strained budgets, private companies have stepped in to offer services ranging from prisoner communications and banking to supervising probation, with the argument that they can save taxpayers money and do a more efficient job.
But it may not be the bargain it’s advertised to be, according to a new study in Criminology & Public Policy, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.
Parallel to the rise in private prisons, a small number of corporations have “cornered the market” on select prison and court services—earning immense profits from practices that may actually harm the individuals they are meant to serve, writes Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
The study, noting that few of the contracts between private prison service providers and authorities are open to public view, called on state and local jurisdictions to require more transparency and accountability—and closer regulation.
“The market structure of these services creates the potential for exploitative pricing,” wrote Harris.
Harris and her team of researchers at the University of Washington examined what they called the “cost points” now present at every stage of the system, from preconviction and incarceration to community supervision, where private corporations have replaced government services.
They concluded that the monopoly power such firms have over a “captive market” of inmates and defendants who are required by authorities to use their services potentially adds “another layer of punishment” to the poor people who make up the bulk of those involved in the U.S. justice system.
The privatization of services also extends to immigrant detention. Private companies are involved in offering a range of services to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency from premium payment bond services to GPS systems for individuals petitioning for release from detention centers.
“Even though justice institutions primarily remain public entities, private corporations are running many key justice system programs and generating large profits from captive populations,” the study said.
The paper focused on two “case studies” in Washington State: the Seattle Municipal Court, which contracts out electronic monitoring and other court-imposed penalties for DUI offenses; and the state Department of Corrections contract with a company called JPay to provide debit cards, communications and recreational entertainment in the form of online movies to inmates.
In both cases, individuals under the control of the justice system were required to use the private company’s services, in effect negating the “benefits of competition and price reduction that privatization claims to provide,” the study said.
Sometimes such arrangements provide additional revenue to the government.
Washington drivers convicted for DUI offenses, for example, must pay $20 per month into an Ignition Interlock Device Revolving Account, of which a small amount (25 cents) is placed in a state fund for indigent drivers.
But the supposed deterrent effects of high fees are offset by the burden they place on poor people, the study noted.
“While discouraging people not to drive under the influence of mind-altering substances benefits society, the system currently in place further advantages people who can afford both the financial costs and time constraints to have the charges ultimately removed from their records,” the study said.
Under its contract with the Washington DOC, JPay provided money transfers, email, videocalls and even music players to inmates in all state prisons.
JPay, one of the largest private prison companies in the U.S., with contracts in over 35 state and local jurisdictions, was able to set high prices for its services. It charged $7.95 for a 30-minute “video visitation call,” compared to $3.30 for a regular phone call.
In 2015, JPay was bought by Securus, the largest provider of prison security technology in the country, raising further questions about a private corrections industry market “that restricts serious competition,” the study said.
The researchers noted that the drive for partnerships between government and private companies was a reflection of authorities’ efforts to address the needs of stressed and overworked systems.
But as “more and more responsibilities of the justice system have been offloaded to private entities,” policymakers needed to address the ethics of privatization rather than just its efficiency benefits, the study said.
“How do profit-driven motives of private companies, embedded within the day-to-day operations of justice activities, affect individuals who must pay for these private services?” asked the study.
“Might these additional costs be serving a retributive, deterrent or even rehabilitative benefit?”
See also: How the Fight for ‘Prison Phone Justice’ Scored a Major Victory, The Crime Report, April 23, 2019
Download the full study here.