Sunday, November 2, 2014

PF Dec 2014 - For-Profit Prisons - Introduction

Resolved: For-profit prisons in the United States should be banned.


The reason for this resolution is pretty straightforward.  The prison system in the United States is part of the U.S. Criminal Justice System, which is comprised of three major institutions: law enforcement, the courts system, and corrections, which most commonly consists of probation or incarceration. (src: FindLaw)

It is the incarceration (imprisonment) portion of the criminal justice system we are dealing with in this resolution.  For relevant background, no doubt you have heard of the social contract, the philosophical idea that people form governments to protect their rights and liberties from infringement by others.  Thus people relinquish some of their absolute freedoms to an authority which in-turn agrees to defend those freedoms which are not relinquished.  As a result the government ends up protecting its citizens from foreign invaders and other citizens who are inclined to deprive the rest of the citizens of their lives, properties, or rights; by breaking laws established to prevent such activities.  The law often requires violators to be imprisoned (presumably as a deterrent) for a prescribed length of time.  So...all of these responsibilities, enforcing the law, determining if there have been violations and acting to correct those violations are considered responsibilities of the government. It is a huge, expensive undertaking which requires budgets which are derived either from taxes or deficit spending and so, there is a major incentive to reduce costs, just like in the private sector. Therefore, when private companies offered to provide prison services at a lower price, and considering, that other countries successfully contract prison services to private firms, it seems like a no-brainer way to reduce costs and provide the same level of service.

I think it worth noting, that prison systems were pretty much always intended to operate in such a way that they covered their costs.  Paying for the food and housing costs of criminals at public expense has never been a popular idea.

Austin & Coventry 2001:
For most of the correctional history of the United States, prison labor was expected to generate a profit for the institution. If generating a profit was not feasible, it was incumbent upon the prisoner to pay the costs of incarceration and become self-supporting. The “managers” of early detention facilities charged their inmates for food and clothing, while providing substandard service. The income generated by inmate labor, however, was not sufficient to cover the high costs of operating correctional systems, despite persistent and intense efforts to make the system pay for itself (Feeler, 1991). Without independent oversight and monitoring, the convict labor system eventually succumbed to bribery and corruption.

In the 1970's more and more facilities were operated by private firms to "house" juvenile offenders and in the 1980's the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued contracts to private concerns to detain individuals who had entered the country illegally, followed by the first county-level corrections facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Hamilton Country Tennessee (Austin & Conventry, 2001:12)

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, at the end of 2013 an aggregate of 8% of the prison population was housed in private prisons.

"The total number of state and federal prisoners housed in private facilities decreased 3%, from 137,200 at yearend 2012 to 133,000 at yearend 2013. Private prisons held 7% of the total state prison population and 19% of the federal prison population on December 31, 2013."

It seems privatization of the prison systems has not grown into a huge industry and I think student researchers will find there has been a lot of opposition from unions and existing justice system employees who are opposed to privatization for obvious reasons.  Government jobs can be nice, with good pay and great benefits and no one wants their job outsourced.  Of course, this resolution is not about how big the industry has become, but rather about whether these kinds of for-profit systems should be allowed to operate in the first place.


Profit, For-Profit
Something that is designated "for-profit", according to Merriam-Webster, is established, maintained or conducted for the purpose of making a profit and "profit" is money made in a business after all expenses are paid. We could qualify the definition somewhat and state the intent of a for-profit entity is to earn a profit even though they may fail to do so.  Nevertheless, even if a concern is operating in the "red" (i.e. losing money) if it intends to make a surplus of money as soon as possible, it is considered a "for-profit" concern.

We pretty much all know and understand what a prison is and its purpose.  A prison is a place from which one cannot escape. In the context of criminal justice, it is place of confinement in which people are held pending trial or held after conviction as a form of punishment.

For-Profit Prison
Based upon the previous definitions, we can define a for-profit prison as a prison who purpose is to make a profit. Profits should not be considered evil.  It is through the use of profits that corporations can expand and offer more services or additional facilities which employ more people.

United States
No doubt we do not need to define the United States because the majority of people debating and judging this debate will understand the meaning.  However, for what it is worth, we can note that "United States" is not restricted to the fifty states. It includes all states and territories under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Criminal Justice System.  We need not split hairs over federal versus state-level justice systems.  All U.S. government (federal, state, local and military) justice systems are fair game.

to ban
The verb to ban basically means to prohibit something and we can infer from the context, the prohibition is a matter of law.  In other words, the U.S. should outlaw for-profit prisons.

should be banned
Recently, I had a brief discussion of this kind of wording of PF topics with another coach in our district who is concerned about the use of "normative statements" in Public Forum debate. The problem with normative statements is they require value judgements which can never be objectively proven right or wrong.  Normative statements are common in Lincoln-Douglas debate, not Public Forum. For example, if this resolution was worded "The disadvantages of for-profit prisons in the United States outweigh the benefits" it would likely engender the intended debate without the normative component.  Typically, this has not been a real problem in debates I have seen, which tend to hold to traditional PF intentions and the language of the resolution wording is rarely debated except when issues of scope or context are at stake. Nevertheless, I think for this topic a value framework could provide a reasonable weighing mechanism for judges.

The Pro position is here.
For the Con position click here


Austin, J; Coventry, G; 2001; Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons, Bureau of Justice Assistance, February 2001 Monograph NCJ 181249


  1. Do you think PRO or CON is harder for this topic?

    1. I definitely have an opinion on that, but I don't want to "poison the well", so to speak.

    2. I think that the CON side might have a slight disadvantage due to the large increase of assault rates in non-profit prisons. Otherwise, I think both are equal. I find this resolution strange, because I have never debated something that flat out wants the subject to be banned. Anyways, hope this helped!

    3. I am currently arguing this debate in my high school debate class, and i can tell you that arguing on for this case is extremly hard.


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