For-profit prisons: the ethical conundrum

unclesamprison poster
Kyla Herrmannsen

The first for-profit prison in America, San Quentin, was established in 1852. Now, there are over 150 privately-run prisons across the United States of America.

Privately-run prisons rapidly grew in popularity in the 1980s in a bid to ease overcrowding at state-run prisons and to lower state spending on incarceration.

But, for-profit prisons come with a certain ethical conundrum. Protest posters with slogans such as, ‘The concept of prisons for profit is wrong because it creates a demand for prisoners’ point to the moral dilemma associated with profiting off others misdemeanours.

Some argue that privately-run prisons have the incentive of not rehabilitating inmates as fuller prisons and higher rates of recidivism (re-offending) work to their financial advantage, ultimately raising their profits.

Ethical questions aside, private-run prisons have come under fire in recent years for being sites of rampant violence and mismanagement. Just recently, it was announced that the FBI is investigating the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) over their mismanagement of the largest privately-run prison in Idaho. The prison, dubbed “Gladiator School” for its rampant gang violence and volatility, has now been taken over by the state’s corrections department. CCA’s contract with Idaho to run the prison was valued at $29 million a year.


Closer to home, G4S-run prison, Mangaung Correctional Centre – one of only two privately run prisons in South Africa – made headlines last year after Wits Justice Project senior journalist, Ruth Hopkins, published a report exposing torture in the form of electro-shocks and forced injecting of anti-psychotics at the prison.

The expose prompted the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to take over control of the prison for an interim period while an official investigation was launched (the results are pending). DCS said that G4S had lost “effective control over the prison”. In the wake of the expose, Minister of Correctional Services, Sibusiso Ndebele, admitted that privately run prisons are failing in South Africa.

private prisons protest

Read more about for-profit prisons:

Prison ratings: ‘Serious concern’ over two private prisons

Can privately-run prisons work?

Private jails ‘worse than public’

US: America’s Private Gulag

Private Prison Companies Make Big Money Off Detaining Undocumented Immigrants

How the American Privatized Prison Is Spreading Overseas

G4S loses Wolds prison contract



About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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