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.)

All Around the World

The state of Massachusetts has a reputation of being fairly liberal. It is even known forhaving one of the lowest ten incarceration rates in the country (the Sentencing Project). According to the Sentencing Project, the state has a rate of 200 prisoners in jail per population of 100,000.         That sounds very impressive compared to state of Georgia’s rate of 547/100,000 \and the nation’s overall rate of 760/100,000. That is until you consider some the European and Asian rates: “Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153.” (Time).

Our state should not strive simply for the status of one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. We should be working towards having one of the lowest incarceration rates overall.

In this era of globalization, the United States is not an island alone in the world, insignificant to other countries. As an economic superpower and supposed leader in human rights, the world sees how we treat our offenders, and some have followed suit. The British judicial system has shifted from its’ 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which “recognized the limited impact of incarceration on crime and called for a halt of the growth of the prison system,” through the work government officials Tony Blair and Michael Howard (Mauer 14). England and Wales together reached a prison population of almost 85,000 in 2010, a ninety percent increase since 1993 ( This extends beyond Britain, however, as proposals are made in the Czech Republic for a “three-strikes” policy similar to that of California (Mauer 14).

If it was not enough that we are misallocating resources by caging up our criminals instead of addressing the problems within our society, our foolishness is now spreading. We must consider the impact our choices make upon other countries around the world. If we do not reduce the disparities between international incarceration rates and our own by decreasing our prison populations, we may end up inspiring increases in other countries.

Mauer, Marc. Race to Incarcerate. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print.

Once A Prisoner, Always A Prisoner

Xavier McElrath-Bey spent thirteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections as an accomplice to gang murder. He was thirteen when he was locked up. Few people would argue that McElrath-Bey should have gotten out scot-free. If accomplices to murder do not deserve jail time, then what kind of criminals do?

To many, this is where the story ends.  By locking up McElrath-Bey, the murder victim is vindicated. The case is closed, the villain is locked away, and the story has a happy and fulfilling ending.  However, the truth is more complicated. McElrath-Bey will not be in prison for his entire life—he will be released when he is twenty-six.  What sort of person do we want McElrath-Bey to be when he walks out into society?

Most inmates spend their time engaging in mindless prison labor. They do not have the opportunity to learn or further their job skills. Recently released prisoners are unable to find jobs or take advantage of public benefits, such as food stamps and public housing. Is it any wonder that over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years? (Pew Center on the States) As Take Part eloquently states, America not only locks people up, but “[throws] away the keys—the keys, that is, to rehabilitation and reintegrating to free society.”

Prison education programs are a great investment. According to Take Part, every dollar in higher education programs sees an 18 dollar investment. McElrath-Bey earned an advanced degree in counseling and human services from Roosevelt University (he also had a 4.0 GPA with his bachelors degree in social sciences). Now McElrath-Bey works with Northwestern University to advocate for mental health treatment for juvenile delinquents.

We can’t just lock up criminals and forget about them. What kind of people do we want to reintegrate to free society?

Do more prisoners mean less crime?

New York City’s crime rates have gone down, and yet fewer inmates are in jail. What gives? According to this New York Times article, the Big Apple has been focusing on treatment and rehabilitative programs “intended to help deter the return of former prisoners to jail.”  The results have been noticeable: there has been a 32% decrease in the city’s incarceration rate from the past decade’s. The city’s incarceration rate is 27% lower than the national rate.

The data in New York City shows that incarceration rates are not necessarily tied to crime rates. The prevailing notion of justice is that incarceration will stop crime. This doesn’t seem the case here. We should dismantle the simplistic belief that just locking away criminals will solve the problem.

The New York Times has attributed the city’s success to a proliferation of rehabilitative programs for prisoners.  According to the Pew Center on the States, over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years. With policies that bar recently released prisoners from public housing and employment, it is certainly difficult to stay out of crime. Programs that teach inmates job skills and policies that allow inmates to reenter society keep released prisoners out of jail.

The city should be applauded for its efforts. It has, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg remarked, “proven that… successfully preventing crimes and breaking cycles of criminal activity can save thousands from a life of cycling through the criminal justice system.” We can only hope that these kinds of policies become implemented on a federal level.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow  is controversial, and for good reason: the tone is harsh and urgent, the thesis is bold and nearly unthinkable, and the piling evidence is a slap in the face.  In retrospect, the book’s prescribed shock therapy was the only way allow serious dialogue about the U.S. criminal justice system. Alexander questioned the notions that justice was blind, and that prison was the end-all solution for crime.

Perhaps the most surprisingly takeaway is the fact that incarceration rates move independently of crime rates. Of course, incarceration rates should move independently of crime rates. Prisoners are prisoners because they commit crimes. Therefore, incarceration rates should rise as crime rates rise. This is not so. The justice system isn’t objective and apolitical. In fact, it is shaped by political policy, and executed through subjective enforcement.

Alexander points to the extent to which drug policy has affected the justice system.  The war on drugs has counted for two-thirds of the increase in the incarceration rate. The power of a simple policy change has transformed the judicial system, and the communities that we live in. Furthermore, certain policies disproportionately affects some social groups than others. For example, a more severe ban on cocaine than on crack has been interpreted to benefit white citizens. Policies are created by politicians, and are naturally political.

Lastly, the enforcement of policies can be handled in many ways. Selective enforcement affects the types of people that are arrested. Alexander makes the case that racial profiling is conscious and intentional; she points to the fact that though white professionals have higher rates of drug crime, 90% of drug arrests are black in many cities.

Justice can never truly be objective. Acknowledging this allows one to admit flaws in the justice system. Admitting flaws allows one to seriously examine and improve the current status quo.

Our Inspiration: The Justice Mapping Center

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world, 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens (Time Magazine). Our criminal justice system often does not work to fix the issues within our society, and instead chooses to lock up offenders.

Eric Cadora and his team at the The Justice Mapping Center have decided to do something about it. They want to break the cycle of crime and influence legislators to address the root causes of crimes, instead of simply throwing the offenders in jail.

The Justice Mapping Center takes census and incarceration data and creates maps of the information. The purpose of their maps is to show trends of crimes rates in neighborhoods that are not always obvious to legislators and inspire a shift in governmental cities. The millions of dollars spent on incarceration could instead be redirected towards improving the communities, effectively changing the lives of families across the nation.

Cadora and the JMC have worked all around the country to spread awareness and try to influence policy-making  He and his team want policy makers to think: “why were we spending $6 million a year to remove and return a whole range of people, for technical violations, when we could be investing some of those dollars in the social and economic well-being of those places” (NPR).

The work of Cadora and the JMC have already opened up the eyes of many Americans who did not see the issues with our criminal justice system. We, the Justice League, strive to  continue Cadora’s mission and create a map of the Boston area to demonstrate the trends of incarceration around the city.

A History of the American Prison System

The earliest American prisons were a combination of “religion, barbarity, and pragmatism.” Major towns had so few people that colonists could not afford nor felt the need to institutionalize convicts, so punishments were immediate and local. In this early system corporal punishment and prolonged humiliation were exceedingly common, as they were designed to deter criminals from acting. Our prisons were initially heavily influenced by the notably harsh and extensive English criminal code. The leading philosophy at the time came from Christian Calvinist doctrines that taught that man was inherently evil and full of sin. This left no place for reform, only deterrence.

Eventually more humane punishments were pushed for, as French political thinkers like Montesquieu and Rousseau argued that people were able to calculate the costs and benefits of their actions. This idea resonated in America and lead to reforms due to writings from philosophers like Cesare Beccaria. These initial changes were the roots of convict labor as punishment, but attempts to control prisons were woefully unsuccessful. In one prison, “to keep order, the head jailer arranged for a deputy to stand beside the preacher with a lighted torch and loaded cannon aimed at the convicts and ordered him to fire should any man move.” At this time private, cellular imprisonment was implemented, and was a radical idea for the American colonies, though it had been implemented as early as ancient Rome.

Cellular imprisonment was remarkably successful, but ran into problems as populations expanded and prisons grew larger. Eventually larger penitentiaries were constructed in New York and Pennsylvania during the early 1800’s which improved the situation. New approaches like solitary confinement without labor were attempted, but had disastrous effects on the mental health of prisoners. In New York, the congregate system was devised, in which inmates slept in separate cells, but worked in common shops during the day. Extreme control was instituted over inmates as the prison attempted to maximize profit from the shops. The first warden of the Auburn penitentiary in New York, Elam Lynds, sought to break a prisoner’s spirit and turn them into “a silent and insulated working machine.”

In Pennsylvania, the warden took an approach of reform, ensuring that prisoners were taught to read and received work if they wished, but kept the inmates in a more solitary environment as his approach focused on individual attention. Ultimately the New York approach was adopted by the other states due to its economic advantages.

In 1867 Enoch Wines and Theodore Dwight created a report that argued that prisons should target reformation, and that the current prison conditions offered no hope for this. Reformation was still regarded as a waste of time due to its economic cost. Those in charge of prisons also had little interest as appointments to prison positions were largely politically and economically motivated. A major part of this was the contract system, which allowed private individuals to hire prison labor to produce goods. The system was largely abused by contractors and guards.

Prisons shortly became overcrowded and more reforms were attempted with little return. Eventually reformatories became popularized with the social movements of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which gave way to industrial prisons and the abolishment of corporal punishment. These led to correctional institutions similar to the prisons we have today, which allowed for a higher degree of freedom with less intrusive discipline. These modern institutions have a greater focus on reform, but almost solely for lower level offenders who can take classes or work basic jobs while in prison.

Using information and quotes from An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877 by Matthew Meskell.