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.
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."
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.
- SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
- The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
- While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
What is FOSTA-SESTA?
SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018. There was some argument that this law may be unconstitutional as it could potentially violate the first amendment. A criminal defense lawyer explains this law in-depth in this video.
What did FOSTA-SESTA aim to accomplish?
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims. FOSTA-SESTA started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. Targeting websites like Backpage and Craigslist, where sex workers would often arrange meetings with their clientele, FOSTA-SESTA aimed to stop the illegal sex-trafficking activity being conducted online. While the aim of FOSTA-SESTA was to keep people safer, these laws have garnered international speculation and have become quite controversial.
According to BusinessWire, many people are in support of this bill, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and World Without Exploitation (WorldWE).
"With the growth of the Internet, human trafficking that once happened mainly on street corners has largely shifted online. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on the website Backpage.com."
As soon as this bill was signed into law, websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could now be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This meant websites could be prosecuted if they engaged in "the promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."
The bill's effects were felt around the world — from Canadians being unhappy with the impact of this American bill to U.K. politicians considering the implementation of similar laws in the future.
Heather Jarvis, the program coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which supports sex workers in the St. John's area, explained to CBC in an interview that the American bill is impacting everyone, everywhere: "When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries. So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."
Jarvis suggests in her interview that instead of doing what they aimed to do with the bill and improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making sex workers less safe.
While one U.K. publication refers to FOSTA-SESTA as "well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws," it also mentions that politicians in the United Kingdom are hoping to pursue similar laws in the near future.
Has FOSTA-SESTA done more harm than good?
Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark?
Credit: Евгений Вершинин on Adobe Stock
While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
One of the biggest problems many people have with this bill is that it forces sex workers into an even more dangerous situation, which is quite the opposite of what the bill had intended to do.
According to Globe and Mail, there has been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages that promise work - which puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power-dynamic, when before they could attempt to safely arrange their own meetings online.
How dangerous was online sex work before FOSTA-SESTA?
The University of Leicester Department of Criminology conducted an online survey that focused on the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work. According to the results, 91.6 percent of participants had not experienced a burglary in the past 5 years, 84.4 percent had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5 percent had experienced physical assault in the last 12 months.
PivotLegal expresses concerns about this: "It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite."
Websites are also being hypervigilant (and censoring more content than needed) because they can't possibly police every single user's activity on their platform.
Passing this bill meant any website (not just the ones that are commonly used by sex traffickers) could be held liable for their user's posts. Naturally, this saw a general "tightening of the belt" when it came to what was allowed on various platforms. In late 2018, shortly after the FOSTA-SESTA bill was passed, companies like Facebook slowly began to alter their terms and conditions to protect themselves.
Facebook notably added sections that express prohibited certain sexual content and messages:
"Content that includes an implicit invitation for sexual intercourse, which can be described as naming a sexual act and other suggestive elements including (but not limited to):
– vague suggestive statements such as: 'looking forward to an enjoyable evening'
– sexual use of language […]
– content (self-made, digital or existing) that possibly portrays explicit sexual acts or a suggestively positioned person/suggestively positioned persons."
Additionally, sections like this were also added, prohibiting things that could allude to sexual activity:
"Content in which other acts committed by adults are requested or offered, such as:
– commercial pornography
– partners that share fetishes or sexual interests"
Facebook wasn't the only website to crack down on their policies — the Craigslist classifieds section being removed and Reddit banned quite a large number of sex-worker related subreddits.
Is FOSTA-SESTA really helpful?
This is the question many people are facing with the FOSTA-SESTA acts being passed just a few years ago. Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark? Opinions seem to be split down the middle on this — what do you think?
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."
This week, Big Think is partnering with Freethink to bring you amazing stories of the people and technologies that are shaping our future.
- There are over 250,000 unsolved murder cases in the United States. Thomas Hargrove, cofounder of Murder Accountability Project, wants that number to be as close to zero as possible, and he has just the tool to help.
- Hargrove developed an algorithm that, through cluster analysis, is capable of finding connections in murder data that human investigators tend to miss.
- The technology exists, but a considerable roadblock that the project faces is getting support and cooperation from law enforcement offices.
At Big Think, we share actionable lessons from the world's greatest thinkers and doers. This week, we're partnering with Freethink to bring you amazing stories of the people and technologies that are shaping our future, from neuroscience breakthroughs to bionics and justice. Catch Freethink's documentary-style videos here and on our YouTube channel this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.