Private prisons not the answer to overcrowding

The China Post news staff

There is no question that Taiwan’s prison system has an overcrowding issue. Reports of overcrowding date back almost a decade to 2009. That year, the Legislative Yuan’s Budget Center published a report that found many correctional facilities to be so overcrowded that there was less than 1.65 square meters per inmate. In 2011, BBC News reported that Taiwan’s prison population had exceeded its 53,000-inmate capacity and reached 67,000. More recently, the U.S. State Department found prisons in Taiwan operating at 113 percent capacity in 2016.

Overcrowding, which itself has been considered cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S., can lead to poor sanitation conditions, the rampant spread of disease, the failure to provide basic services and stress among inmates and staff, according to criminal justice professor Joycelyn Pollock at Texas State University. Faced with concerns raised by international human rights experts, the current administration has promised to mitigate overcapacity and to push new jail expansion projects.

At Chinese Culture University Law School’s International Enterprise and Management Law Conference last month, professor Huang Chung-min (黃宗旻) suggested privately run prisons as one solution for the problem. But we urge the Tsai Ing-wen administration to think hard before going down the road of private prisons, which have had a dark record in many countries that have tried them. Private prisons, also known as for-profit prisons, are correctional facilities that are run by a third party that the government has contracted. Currently, private companies in Taiwan are involved only in providing necessities such as food and other aspects of general management. Huang is suggesting a more comprehensive privately run prison system, like those in the U.S. and Japan.

The problem with Huang’s suggestion is that in many cases, private facilities have more safety and security issues than government-run ones. The U.S., under the Obama administration, was actually starting to phase out the use of private prisons because of the problems associated with them. That is, of course, before the U.S. Justice Department, under the Trump administration, reversed the phase-out order in February.

U.S. politics aside, there are real problems with private prisons. In a 2016 article in Time magazine, Joseph Margules pointed out the inherent conflict of interest in privately run prisons — a major issue that sometimes gets buried under the other arguments against them.

“The companies that build and run private prisons have a financial interest in the continued growth of mass incarceration,” Margules wrote. “As a result, corporations invest “heavily in lobbying for punitive criminal justice policies.” Taiwan, like the U.S., has a problem with overincarceration, with both countries recently taking forceful measures to crack down on drug-related crimes.