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Prisons are big business

Updated on March 16, 2011

Private Prision and Big Business

Private prisons are big business these days it would seem. In the United States over 1.8 million people are behind bars. According to a number of different sources this means that America imprisons the highest ratio of its population.

One rough estimate is that one in every 32 Americans are imprisoned. Lets put this another way, the US is home to less then 5% of the worlds population yet holds 25% of the world's prisoners. I am an American and I have to say that this goes a long way toward explaining why I didn't feel safe in my home country. Getting thrown in jail seems an all to easy task.

So how does the prison system make big money? Well lets start off with the obvious method of making money to start with. This large prison population make a great work force. You don't have to pay them minimum wadges and there are no unions to contend with.


The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution allows penal labor and states "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.". The history here is interesting. The convict lease system became popular in the southern states because the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries and so leased out prisoners to work at private firms.

The state governments put the responsibility to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care on the firms the prisoners were leased to. The result was of course what could possibly be considered the most inhumane system of labor in the US. The extremely poor conditions caused numerous deaths and reformers abolished the convict lease practice during the progressive era with the last state to abolish this practice being Alabama in 1927.

It does seem that the prisoner lease program is reborn in this modern day with a few differences. Prisoners do earn a wadge. In 2004 the Federal Bureau of Prisons stated that inmates earn between 11 cents and 36 cents per hour. Sound like a wadge that will allow them to save up for when they are released? So they don't feel they need to turn to crime to support themselves.

The argument is made that prisoners should work to pay for their imprisonment. This sort of argument is un-winnable really. A remorseless rapist and murderer is not easy to feel sympathy for, and its easy to say, make him work for his cell. On the other hand, you have a tax paying marijuana smoker being given the maximum sentence for possession of a fraction of a gram of marijuana who is forced to work for 36 cents an hour and the word slave kinda springs to mind.

Is forcing prisoners to work right or is modern slavery?

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Big Business in the Private Prison Industry

I have taken several days in putting this article together and often asked what my feelings are and what my purpose for posting this is.

I feel personally that something is wrong. I feel this because the people you find in prison are not all murderers and rapists, violent people to be shunned for the pain they cause. Of the prison population to great a number of people are there for non-violent crimes like drugs possession.

I find it highly suspicious that such a high proportion of people are in jail in the US and are being forced to work for for profit private companies. I cannot help but think that excuses are being made up to put people in jail and keep them there. It takes jobs from the mainstream workforce, people who need to support their families and in the end seems to promote crime, it'll get you a job.

I would love to hear what other people think and feel. I expect a few unsympathetic 'make them scumbags work!' type arguments and when it is real scumbags we are talking about fair enough, make 'em work and give the profits to their victim, but what about the pot smokers are they scumbags too? Or does something smell, not quite right here?

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    • LeanMan profile image

      Tony 6 years ago from At the Gemba

      Hi Kirstenblog, I am pretty sure that the "profit" earned through our little venture was pretty minimal. There would be far better ways for people to invest their money to make a profit than prison labor!

      The prison had great difficulty also in finding firms to work with, even our company at the time had some major difficulties as many of the employees that should have had contact with the inmates refused to participate!!

    • kirstenblog profile image
      Author

      kirstenblog 6 years ago from London UK

      LeanMan, its very true that learning a skill that can help inmates support themselves when released is a good thing. I still cannot help but worry about the 'for profit' idea and would prefer these sort of working programs be answerable to the state with the aim being improving the chances of rehabilitation not profit for share holders. It's great when an inmate is given a skill and chance for a future, but it sucks when some kid is jailed for silly reasons because their labor will profit someone. I don't trust private interests. :)

    • LeanMan profile image

      Tony 6 years ago from At the Gemba

      In one of my previous companies we set up a production cell within a prison, we supplied machines and components and invested a large amount of time and effort in teaching the inmates new skills that could actually help them to find work when released.

      Many of the inmates are long term unemployed with no experience and skills, hence the need to turn to crime. Giving them a skill can actually help them to better themselves on release.

      After all the resources we had to put into the project the savings on labor costs were not huge, especially as productivity and quality were often low as many of the inmates were just impossible to motivate!

      However some of the inmates were truly interested in what they were doing and worked hard and learned not only how to operate some of the machinery but how to set them and maintain them.

      If this can help even a small percentage of inmates from re-offending and help them develop new skills and find employment then it is in my mind worth while.

    • kirstenblog profile image
      Author

      kirstenblog 7 years ago from London UK

      Tritrain - Na, just make more things illegal, all them folks on the outside wanting fair wages and such must be a real pain for investors *wink*. Could wind up being like the Simpsons when Homer goes to jail for kicking a can so many times as illegal moving of waste! LOL

    • tritrain profile image

      And Drewson 7 years ago from United States

      Maybe the US will start importing prisoners next...

    • kirstenblog profile image
      Author

      kirstenblog 7 years ago from London UK

      BlissfulWriter - Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I find it shocking that so many US citizens are in prison. It seems suspicious. I don't think that a larger portion of the American pubic are criminal 'bad guy' types. Most people seem decent, like they try to be good people and I find the statistics very suspicious if there are people earning a personal profit off prisoners......

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 7 years ago

      That is an interesting chart that shows United States putting so many people in jail.

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