A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.
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The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
A new look at existing data by LSU researchers refutes the Trump administration's claims.
- The United States Department of Defense gifts surplus military equipment and clothing to local police departments.
- The militarization of police coincides with a significant loss of trust in law enforcement from the American public.
- Militarized police departments are more likely to interact violently with their communities.
Watching coverage of protests in American streets, many of us have been shocked to witness what modern policing often looks like. Even putting aside the reason for many of these demonstrations in the first place—allegations of police brutality—what we see onscreen marching towards protestors is chilling. We witness police garbed in helmets, flak jackets, tactical dress, and carrying assault rifles, backed by weaponry designed for the battlefield, not the nation's thoroughfares.
The primary source of this equipment and clothing is the Federal government's 1033 program, which has been described as "Uncle Sam's Goodwill Store." This surplus military equipment (SME)—or "reutilized" gear as the Department of Defense (DOD) calls it—is granted, for free, to local law enforcement agencies, or "LEAs." WIRED estimates the Pentagon has gifted to local police some $7.3 billion worth of military equipment and clothing.
Concerned about the manner in which this militarization has affected policing, and following 2014's Ferguson protests, President Obama curtailed the program. The Trump administration removed these limits in 2017, claiming research had proved militarization reduces crime.
A new study from Louisiana State University (LSU) revisits that research, finding it incomplete and inconsistent. The researchers, led by LSU political scientist Anna Gunderson, collected their own more comprehensive and accurate data and concluded that militarizing local police does not actually reduce crime.
A wide lack of support
Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
It's no wonder that more than half of the American public no longer trusts the police. It's hard not to get the impression that for many police departments, the mission has changed from one of support for its communities to an attempt to intimidate and dominate its members.
Studies back this up. Police whose departments use military equipment are more often violent with community members and are more likely to kill them. Neither is this a small problem at the margins of policing: Over 1,000 people are killed by police annually.
In spite of the Trump administration's faith in the soundness of the 1033 program, others from across the political spectrum disagree. On the right, the Charles Koch Foundation asserts, "This erosion of public confidence in law enforcement and low support for militarization impedes law enforcement's ability to effectively secure public safety." From the left, the American Civil Liberties Union says, "We advocate for a return to a less dangerous, more collaborative style of policing. We should not be able to mistake our officers for soldiers."
Credit: JeremyAdobe Stock
Gunderson explains to LSU Media Center that, "scholars rely on accurate data to track and analyze the true effect of police militarization on crime. Policymakers also need accurate data to base their decisions upon. However, to-date, we do not have reliable data on SME transfers to local police and sheriffs through the federal government."
The research cited by the Trump administration was a study done by the American Economic Association based on SME data collected through a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. Having a look at that data themselves, along with other FOIA 2014 data released by National Public Radio and newer data from 2018, the LSU researchers found that things didn't quite line up. Where FOIA suggests certain counties received SME, NPR's data showed no such transfer. Similarly, NPR reported departments receiving items such as weapons, grants that were not reflected in the 2018 data as expected.
"When we looked at the data and ran the replications, nothing looked like the results being cited by the Trump Administration," Gunderson recalls. "We spent a year trying to diagnose the problem."
The LSU researchers' conclusion was the the previously released SME data from the DOD was too inconsistent to produce reliable insights. They conducted their own analysis, aligning newer data with country-level LEA data, to derive a cohesive, accurate picture that allowed them to more definitively assess who got SME transfers and who didn't, and what effect it had on local crime statistics.
They found no indication that SME transfers led to a reduction in crime. The study concludes, "we find no evidence that federal distributions of SME to local LEAs across the United States reduce crime rates, neither violent nor nonviolent crime rates, in the jurisdictions that receive it."
"This is a cautionary tale about the importance of oversight. The most important thing for policymakers and the public to know is that you can't justify giving surplus military equipment to police departments on the grounds it will lead to a reduction in crime. There is no evidence for that. You can't claim this program is important because it reduces crime."
What's more says, the report, "because of serious data problems and debatable methodological choices in prior studies, the empirical foundations on which social scientists, along with policymakers and the public, stand when making causal claims about the effects of the transfers of SME may be no firmer than quicksand."