Private Prisons: Yes or No?

            Within the past forty years, private prisons have reemerged in the United States. But what does privatization exactly mean in this context? Private for-profit contractors own and run prisons with public funds the government gives them to cover the costs of incarceration. The United States, Britain, and Australia are among the few countries in the world that delegate operation of prison facilities to the private sector. Many states have switched to the privatization of prisons in the hopes of being more “cost-effective.” However, some studies have suggested that private prisons are not more cost-effective; instead, factors that are indifferent to whether the prison is publicly or privately owned dictate cost, such as economies of scale, how old prison facilities are, and security level.

            Private prisons used to be widespread in the United States until the twentieth century when the government took over most prison operations. Privatization started in 1979 when the US Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) contracted private firms to detain illegal immigrants awaiting trial or deportation. Private firms such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) began incorporating and got their foot in the door early. These firms could create detention facilities much more quickly. In 1985, firms began contracting in areas in Florida, New Mexico, and Kentucky to operate their jails.

            Why the shift from public to private? The prison population exploded at the onset of the War on Drugs. Up until 1980, there were under 500,000 inmates in prison. After 1980, the prison population steeply grew, reaching over 2,000,000 Americans incarcerated in 2000. As overcrowding wracked prisons, by 1991, forty states were found to be operating prisons that violated the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Also, reimbursements to private firms could be made using operations funds instead of money from capital accounts, which made it easier to fund private prisons instead of public.

            The strongest argument for switching from public to private is that it is more “cost-effective,” although this is still widely debated and some research suggests it does not alleviate costs. In a meta-analysis on private prison management (private prisons fully owned and operated), it was found that other factors, such as economies of scale, the age of facilities, and security level are more likely to affect the cost of operation, not who the owner is. Some critics of prison privatization claim that in the long-run it will end up being more expensive because there will be a need to keep a constant or increasing prison population to drive profits.

            So are privatized prisons worth it? Private firms are allowed to lobby Congress, and wouldn’t it be worth it to them to lobby for harsher laws to ensure larger prison populations, which means larger profits? Can profit and justice exist simultaneously?

By Cayman Kai Macdonald


            Maahs, Jeff and Travis C. Pratt. “Are Private Prisons More Cost-Effective Than Public Prisons? A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Research Studies.” Crime & Delinquency, 1999. Vol. 45, No. 3, pp 358-371.

            McDonald, Douglas. “Public Imprisonment by Private Means: The Re-emergence of Private Prisons and Jails in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.” British Journal of Criminology, 1994. Vol. 34, pp 29-48.


Bargain With the Devil?

In our current criminal justice system, plea-bargaining can be a controversial issue that can make a huge impact on innocent defendants. On April 4, 2013, the 49th annual Robert D. Klein Lecture took place featuring Daniel Medwed, Professor of Law, who is new to Northeastern this year. Professor Medwed gave a talk titled “Bargain with the Devil?” He discussed prosecutorial overreaching and why it can sometimes be tempting for an innocent defendant to plead guilty.

Professor Medwed began his talk by discussing the role of the prosecutor as a “Minister of Justice.” Prosecutors must be zealous in their quest against defendants, but they must also be fair.

What upset the balance of these scales, however, are the heavy incentives to prosecute defendants. Professor Medwed pointed out the psychological, professional, and political reasons that explain “why a good prosecutor might go bad.” Expectancy bias leads the prosecutor to assume the guilt of the defendant which escalates the prosecutor’s commitment to proving it. Professionally, how does one measure the success of a prosecutor? A popular method is by using conviction rates. In some places, there is even a cash incentive for higher conviction rates, which brings into question whether justice can still be the guiding light in such cases. Political barriers, such as the fact that prosecutors are publicly elected in most states, also encourage prosecutors to adopt a “tough on crime” attitude.

In a criminal case, prosecutors hold all the cards. They choose who and what to charge and whether to disclose evidence before trial. The defendant may not know what evidence they have against him. Coupled with the potential stark contrast between sentencing in a plea bargain versus in court, one can start to imagine why an innocent defendant may feel pressured to plead guilty.

Prosecutors often offer generous plea bargains in weak cases. Again, psychological, professional, and political considerations fuel the prosecutor’s decision to extend such a bargain. Prosecutors may view case weakness equating to bad luck, not the potential innocence of the criminal defendant. Professionally, they are still motivated by the incentive to increase their conviction rate. They also are interested in moving on to the next case as quickly as possible; a plea bargain can sometimes speed things up. Political considerations include the fact that sometimes prosecutors would rather settle the case beforehand instead of it blowing up in court.

Professor Medwed gave two example cases. The first was the case of Chris Ochoa who was accused of the rape and murder of a woman in Austin, Texas in 1988. He was threatened with the possibility of the death penalty if he was found guilty in court, but he was offered a life sentence as a plea bargain. He took it. Twelve years later, DNA testing revealed he was innocent. He had spent twelve years in prison for awful crimes he did not commit. The prosecutors held all the cards and he did not initially know they had no evidence against him. One can see why he decided against gambling with his life in court.

The second case was that of Stephen Schulz. He was accused of armed robbery and he also happened to have a history of hiccups with the law. Because he insisted he was innocent, he refused the plea bargain of three years in prison and went to prison. He was found guilty and sentenced to eleven years. After serving eight years, he was finally released after Professor Medwed and his colleagues presented evidence that suggested he was not connected to the crime. When there is the possibility that innocent people may be found guilty and be forced to endure harsh sentences, one can imagine why they might avoid the gamble and take the seemingly easier plea bargain.

In closing, Professor Medwed offered some thoughts on reform. Plea bargains can have some real advantages, so he did not advocate abolition. The second option would be to narrow the disparity between the sentences offered in a plea bargain and after being found guilty. A third choice would be to disclose evidence before plea bargaining; the final option would be to increase judicial monitoring of pleas. Although plea bargaining can be useful and appropriate sometimes, clearly there is room for reform.

by Cayman Kai Macdonald

Inmate Characteristics

It’s always hard to think about people who are incarcerated and where they come from. No one wants to imagine himself or herself in that situation, but at the same time, people frequently dismiss those who go to jail by saying, “Oh, it’s no surprise he got arrested,” or, “Oh, she had it coming for her.” By saying things like this, we are not actually addressing the potential causes and reasons people of certain demographics more often end up imprisoned rather than someone else.


In Massachusetts, 51% of male inmates and 40% of female inmates have a less than 9th grade reading level. 45% of male inmates and 38% of female inmates have a less than 6th grade math level.

As of 2012, 22% of male inmates and 63% of female inmates were cases that were classified as open mental health cases with a good portion of them on psychotropic medication.

The three-year recidivism rate was 44% for males and 40% for females.

The average age of males is 39 and of females is 36 years old.

As of January 1, 2012 there were 10,925 men in Massachusetts jurisdiction compared to only 798 women.


If we address some of the underlying problems, such as access to education and health services, we may be able to deter some crime or at the very least, make sure people are getting the help they need.


Information from

It’s Time for Massachusetts to Make a Choice

A recent report by MassINC is shedding light on the judicial practices that have become standard in Massachusetts and how their affecting the state’s budget. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements Massachusetts jails are brimming with drug offenders who are becoming quite expensive.

Due in large part to these drug offenders, prison populations have tripled over the past twenty years and high spending numbers have accompanied this rise. 25% of inmates sentenced since 1980 have been for drug offenses and 70% of these inmates are required to serve the state’s minimum sentencing guidelines. The report states that when adjusted for inflation, spending on corrections between 1987 and 2007 has increased by 127%. If big budget cuts and terms like sequestration weren’t flying around this number might not mean much, however when corrections spending rises, the amount spent on other vital services decreases.

One important factor to note is the effect that this corrections spending has had on education spending. Massachusetts will spend 6% more on corrections this year than they will on higher education, while just ten years ago Massachusetts spent 25% more on education than on crime. The time has come where Massachusetts has to decide where they want to invest their money. While it is important to keep the populace safe, a balance has to be struck between the former and fostering education.

How can the state move money back to higher education? This article from has a few scenarios:

  • Reducing the number of inmates convicted of drug offenses to 1985 levels would save $90 million annually.
  • Halting the rising number of prison transfers to maximum security facilities would save $16 million annually.
  • If Massachusetts could reduce the recidivism rate by 5% it would save $150 million. (With 60% of inmates being convicted on new offenses within six years there’s hopefully some wiggle room if more inmates are placed on parole.)