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July 17, 2019

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Prison is no place for private industry

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

For example, why is the administration providing cover for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, who almost surely ordered the murder of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi? Part of the answer, probably, is that President Donald Trump basically approves of the idea of killing critical journalists. But the money the Saudi monarchy spends at Trump properties is relevant, too.

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case, it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

And when I say close ties, we’re talking about personal rewards as well as campaign contributions. A couple of months ago, John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, joined the board of Caliburn International, which runs the infamous Homestead detention center for migrant children.

Which brings us to the issue of private prisons, and privatization in general.

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

And what about the quality of the work? In some cases that’s easy to monitor: If a town hires a private company to provide garbage collection, voters can tell whether the trash is, in fact, being picked up. But if you hire a private company to provide services in a situation where the public can’t see what it’s doing, crony capitalism can lead to poor performance as well as high costs.

Many people have, I think, forgotten about the disastrous Bush administration occupation of Iraq, but the incompetence and abuses of politically connected private contractors, like Erik Prince’s security company Blackwater, played a major role in the debacle. Did I mention that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education and a key defender of for-profit education, is Prince’s sister?

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice? Sure enough, privately run prisons have a far worse security record than public prisons.

Yet the number of inmates in private prisons has grown by leaps and bounds — especially in the area of immigrant detention. The Obama administration finally tried to begin a phaseout of federal use of private prisons, and a number of Democratic presidential candidates have called for an end to their use. (Prison operator stocks fell sharply last month, when Elizabeth Warren laid out a plan to eliminate the industry.)

But Trump, of course, reversed the Obama moves. And the surge in immigrant detention has been a major new source of private-prison-industry profits.

How much of a role has this played in policy? It would, I think, be going too far to claim that the private-prison industry — merchants of detention? — has been a driving force behind the viciousness of Trump’s border policy. But the fact that crony capitalists close to the administration profit from the viciousness surely greases the path.

And this fits the general pattern. Cruelty and corruption are intertwined in Trump administration policy. Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.