Incarceration Nation: Ethical Issues Surrounding Private Prisons

The United States has the largest prison population in the world since the incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the mid 70’s, as seen in the chart below.


Prisoners, of whom a majority are African-American, are often employed as cheap or even free labor by companies with the intention of cutting costs and maximising profit. The most common form of employment involves simple manufacturing that operates under government-run prison production schemes that are called “correctional industries” or Unicor. As mentioned in last week’s post, private prisons fall short in terms of cost-efficiency. In addition to that, they are also severely lacking from a moral standpoint. This post will take a closer look at the ethical implications of private prisons and inmate labor.

The first problem lies with who the prisoners are. Most inmates commit low-level, non-violent crimes and have been unfairly sentenced to jail time. While on the surface it might seem as though prosecutors are to blame for this, private prisons are the main culprit as they earn more profit when more of their prisons are filled up. Lauren-Brooke Eisen (@lbeisen), senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, has even said that one reason the Trump administration is moving back to private prisons is based on “what they falsely see as a rise in crime”.

Overcrowding, overheating, understaffing, lack of medical attention, abuse and neglect… These are just some of the conditions inmates are subjected to in for-profit prisons. Some prison facilities even lose their contract with federal immigration authorities because of the unimaginable conditions they subject their inmates to. One example is the Willacy facility, in which inmates slept a couple of feet apart in an area haphazardly built out of Kevlar tents.

We also cannot ignore the fact that when corporations hire inmates, some, if not most, of them are forced to work against their will. This means that your groceries from Whole Foods and lingerie from Victoria’s Secret were involuntarily made or packaged by someone just so that a company could make more profit from it. Doesn’t that sound like slavery to you?

The ethical issues that stem from inmate labor extend far beyond prison walls. BP P.L.C., also known as British Petroleum, is a British multinational oil and gas company that currently has 74,500 employees in 72 countries. In 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, inmates were made to clean up crude oil which had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico along Louisiana beaches. This sparked outrage as instead of hiring the coastal residents who were desperate for work, BP turned to hiring inmates with the hopes of earning tax breaks. Inmates were forced to work for hours on end, performing the most toxic job in America with no proper job training.


The ethical issues surrounding private prisons are more than sufficient to necessitate private prison reform.