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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Joshua Munroe: Banning private prisons creates better government accountability

By Joshua Munroe

By Joshua Munroe

On March 30, the Washington state Senate passed HB 1090, a bill designed to close detention facilities owned by private corporations that contract their services with local, state, and federal governmental agencies.

The legislation would also prevent such facilities owned by private entities from operating in the state in the future. Should it be enacted and implemented as designed, HB 1090 is a good step toward improving the state’s handling of issues such as criminal justice. At least three major reasons exist why this bill deserves our support: incentives, implementation and immigration policy.

The first such reason is the change of incentives surrounding incarceration. The institution affected directly by HB 1090 is the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, the only such facility owned and operated by a private organization – the GEO Group – in Washington.

Proponents for the bill argue that, despite the facility contracting with a federal agency – Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE – private prisons represent an incentive structure that prioritizes incarceration over rehabilitation.

Furthermore, opponents of private prisons assert that public scrutiny and accountability of such facilities is more difficult to maintain, leading to the possible violation of human rights. Bringing the full responsibility of incarceration under the direct purview of elected and appointed governing bodies would shift the incentive structure away from that of profit and efficiency toward that of prioritizing the security and welfare of the government’s constituents.

The incentive structure motivating the service provider is related to the issue of implementing criminal justice policy and the role of the state as a direct delivery mechanism.

In the study of public policy, governments can implement programs and policies directly or indirectly.

The NWDC is an example of indirect implementation, with a federal agency contracting a service with a private entity. But questions arise from this arrangement: Should the government grant the responsibility to uphold human and civil rights to a private company? How is effective oversight and regulation maintained?

Contracting out the ability to incarcerate is different from contracting out the construction of a government building, so perhaps we should only rely on direct implementation where the maintenance of prisons is concerned.

Finally, HB 1090 helps the state’s approach to immigration policy by removing a symbol of abuse that sowed distrust in and around immigrant communities in the region.

Since the NWDC was used as an ICE detention facility, the incarcerated population is the product of numerous ICE raids and arrests conducted over the years.

Furthermore, disproportionate use of punishments at the facility – reported in the public and cited in the language of the bill – represents a disparity in how certain legal violations are handled. Removing the NWDC and placing sole accountability on governing institutions helps rebuild trust among those in immigrant communities.

From the perspective of public policy, it makes sense to support the passage of HB 1090 for all the reasons listed above. There is also a strong legal defense for this bill, as a U.S. District Court upheld most of California’s private prison ban in July following a court challenge by the GEO Group.

With the enactment of HB 1090, Washington would join at least 22 other states in setting a standard that it is the people, not private corporations, that should control our law enforcement system.

Joshua Munroe is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Washington State University, specializing in public policy, and a writing Fellow at the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

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