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Publication Citation

42 Fordham Urban Law Journal 355 (2015)


The pragmatics of privatization offer terrain for a critical understanding of the relationship between government and business under the conditions associated with the globalization of neoliberal capitalism. Prison privatization is especially significant in this context, given the fact that—for privatization advocates and critics alike, in the United States and elsewhere—prisons represent a bellwether for broader questions about the scope of government. We review the recent history of prison privatization in the United States from the vantage point of the policy responses to the privatization movement more generally, to highlight the various factors that, over time, made private prisons iconic of the limits of government. We develop three interrelated themes: (1) prison privatization was politicized as a test of government’s scope only after a priority on limiting government was set in place as a matter of policy under the Reagan and Bush Administrations (and continued thereafter); (2) the privatization movement pressed for prison privatization prior to the mass incarcerations of the 1980’s and 1990’s, often claimed as the rationale for private prisons (i.e., to relieve state budgets from the costs of expanding prison capacity); and (3) an earlier privatization project within prisons involved governmental partnerships with businesses, as a means of financing prisons and stabilizing businesses’ profit margins through prison labor. In sum, in relation to prisons, privatization should not be seen as a necessary response to prison crowding, but a favored response to instabilities within the global economy. What, then, is the problem with prison privatization? We read the private prison debate as pointing to larger questions of public responsibility and the government’s role in mediating the effects of the global economy on the conditions of life, labor and citizenship, inside and outside prison walls.