Report on the Senior College Colloquium on State Punishment and Private Prisons

September 28, 2017, 2:00 -4:00 pm
Senior College Centre, Committee Room
Six participants, including moderators Charles and Daphne Maurer and reporter Mary Finlay.

Background, readings and discussion questions prepared by Charles Maurer.

Background and readings

The reading for the colloquium on private prisons is at the end of this section. It’s written by a lawyer, so it reads as though the author was being paid by the page in kudos if not in cash, but it surveys the question from a remarkable number of perspectives and summarizes a lot of information. Don’t be put off by the apparent length. Fully one-half of the pages are filled by footnotes and the text is an easy read.

The author pitches much of her argument in the language of a political philosopher named John Rawls.  This obfuscates a few paragraphs here and there but does not obscure them.  If you are interested, you can introduce yourself to Rawls at Wikipedia <

Although this article is tied exclusively to the U.S. prison and legal systems, and references only U.S. laws and judgments, its arguments are universal.

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The first part of the discussion focussed on establishing the purpose of prisons. We identified three: to protect society, to punish people who have done something wrong, in the interest of social justice; and to rehabilitate offenders–this last objective combining elements of the other two. We then reviewed some highlights of the history of prisons from the Sharon Dolovich article, noting that in the past prison had been only one of many alternatives in achieving the goals we had identified. In the US, capital punishment remains as an alternative to prison for achieving the first two objectives, but in Canada prison is our major tool.

The next question was “What is the downside of trying to achieve these goals by means of a private rather than a public prison system?” It seemed evident that the first goal, protecting society, was met equally well in both instances, at least if we excluded the prisoners themselves as members of society deserving of protection. It seems no more likely that an inmate will escape from a private than from a public system. Insofar, however, as rehabilitation protects society once an inmate is released, by lessening his or her chances of recidivism, one could argue that this represented a conflict of interest for a for-profit system.

But the major objection to private prisons, in the opinion of the group, was their failure to satisfy our notions of social justice. First, because objectively inferior food, accommodation, health care, etc means that punishment in a private prison is more severe than was intended by the original sentence. Dolovich described conditions that bordered on torture. And secondly and more importantly, private prisons contradict the Canadian consensus that social democracy means that “government will do the big things,” including running all aspects of the criminal justice system. We rejected the idea that prison or any other form of punishment was meant to satisfy individual notions of justice, provide “closure” for victims or otherwise meet private objectives.

Possibly as a tangent to this idea some alternatives to prison used in smaller First Nations communities were discussed: healing circles or banishment were examples. It was noted that the focus in these methods was the protection of the community rather than the protection of the rights of the accused, so they are not entirely consistent with the larger community’s notion of justice. Nonetheless, the consensus of the group was that there were alternatives to prison which could better meet our three primary objectives, and that it is evident that in Canada prison sentences are mandated and handed down in a fashion that disproportionately affects poor and racialised persons.

Despite this failure, the commitment to a public prison system sends the message that these institutions should reflect society’s values, and the goal(s) of the correctional system should be determined by evolving civic culture. One of the arguments for the public administration of public services is that it brings failures into public discussion and increases a demand for accountability. In conclusion we did note that at least at the federal level the privatisation of US prisons was in the process of being dismantled, at least until the Trump era.