Law and justice is one of the pillars of any democracy, with increasing crime rate, drug trafficking and immigration, human storage is one of the challenges for any government. Prisons have evolved from detention centers for criminals to a vibrant place involving sports, learning centre, etc. Today’s prison is no less than a small economy. There can be a check on the conflict between objectives and reality, but in this article we will explore the functioning of private prisons. 

The concept of private prisons dates back to the 1990s, when the US witnessed increased crime rates and harsh law enforcement. The US Government faced an acute shortage of prisons and government prisons were inhabitable in context of sanitation, and other basic amenities. So, the Government leased some of its facilities to Private companies. Corecivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporations of America was the first company to design, operate and build a private prison and today it’s the largest private prisons corporation in the US. United States prisons harbour 2.3 million people which is the largest in the world. Private prison companies like Corecivic, become profitable when the social economy gets disordered with high crime rates, in 2018 alone CCA bagged a massive profit of 2.3$ Billion. Let’s deconstruct the business model of private prisons. The model is good as it relieves governments from management of prisons and private companies get profits out of it. Officials of government are highly corrupt and the government has also to deal with labour unions and pay scale of managers. So, the government has to bear high costs of managing such prisons. While private companies offer such services at much lower cost. So, the government role is to put people behind the bars, and pay stipend to companies for managing each prisoner as mentioned in the contract. It seems a flawless model, but there is a social conflict involved. The cash cow of such businesses is ‘ convicts ‘, there is no other source of income for these companies, except the contract price from the government. To stay in business, they need a regular inflow of prisoners. Decreasing costs or increasing revenue, both seem difficult on the part of prisons, so they can’t grow. To get more prisoners, you need stricter laws and regulations. To do so, you need politicians on your side with the narrative “ Let’s make America safe again”, and that brings the challenge of lobbying. When Obama won elections, the stock price of these companies fell by 60%, as Obama’s presidential nomination was based on flexible laws, while the story reversed with Trump’s coming to power. To decrease the cost, prisons have to cut spending on employees, educational and rehabilitation facilities, which brought private prisons in first place. So, the model of private prisons is unsustainable in the long run.

Such a model is also hard to implement in India, as there are grave concerns of corporatization of social infrastructures.

India’s Story 

India has one of the largest detention centers inhibiting 4,00,000+ prisoners. There were 433,003 prisoners in jails across India as on 31 December 2016. Males at 414,505 makeup 95.73% of prisoners while females at 18,498 represent 4.27%. When it comes to India, the concept of, ‘privatization of prisons’ hasn’t really taken off. In fact, all prisons are controlled and operated by the centre and state governments. Though, none of it has affected prisons from becoming a potential sector for growth. 

In Pune’s Yerwada Jail for example, apart from the mainstream table-chair making as well as making eatables like chikki, inmates are involved in repairs of old leather shoes. When the business had just started, these shoes were given to the needy or distributed to the inmates within the prison. However, as the business has expanded, the inmates of Yerwada’s Jail have become a part of an international business economy. Working under the brand name ‘Inmate’, already more than 30,000 pairs of footwear have been exported to the United States of America and many other European countries too, helping them achieve a turnover of ₹2 crore in the financial year 2018-19! The revenue for 2019-20 is expected to touch ₹8 crore. A great deal of appreciation goes to Divej Mehta too, who is the director of Tergus Works Pvt. Ltd, the firm behind exports of the footwear.

Inmates of the Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai are involved with manufacturing shoe polish and work at a shoe polish unit set up inside the prison. The polish produced here is supplied to various state government departments. Many inmates are also pushed towards vocational training, managerial activities and some professional courses too.

Prison Currency – a means to sustain.

An investigation by a newspaper has revealed some of the most wanted items by the inmates. These include – mobile phones, SIM cards, weed (marijuana), home-cooked food and pornographic movies. The problem though is not how any of this will get smuggled in, but what will be the medium of exchange. Friends and relatives of the prisoners help smuggle in weed, pen-drives or a SIM card inside of a bread and mobile phone chargers in toiletries. They then pay bribes to the prison staff who make sure it reaches the prisoner at the ‘prevailing jail rates’.

One small packet of weed that costs ₹100, would cost ₹2000 inside a jail. Mobile phones can range from ₹15,000 to ₹35,000 and food may cost upwards of ₹300/ meal. So, imagine you are a convict who’s in a dire need of a phone. Your plan of action would be something on these lines: first, you would try and befriend a prison staffer or a corrupt official there. A deal will then be struck between you and your new friend with all the terms and conditions kept in mind. Payment is made to a family member of the staffer through the prisoner’s outside contacts. This proves to be a ‘win-win’ situation for both the convict and the prison staffer.

Within prison, ‘beedis’ (thin cigarettes wrapped in leaves) are the currency of choice. More often than not, prisoners want a handset and once they get hold of that, they start controlling payment schemes.  So, a mere phone call may cost you about 2-3 beedis.

Jails avoid use of cash. So, prisoners have to participate in various activities to get a credit score or in some prison smart cards. Thus, the points earned help them buy stores and groceries. However, the forces of demand and supply react sometimes in unexpected ways, leading to a mini black economy. 

In 2004, ramen became the new god of jail economy. Ramen can buy you anything in prisons, ranging from cell-phones, drugs, etc.. It can be used to gamble, buy, sell, and sometimes get favours too. Coffee beans, rice and book stamps are also used in some western country prisons. 

Tihar Jail 

Though Indian prisons are always understaffed, deficit budgeted, and over occupied, representing a very grim picture of Indian Justice System. Tihar Jail presents a very different picture. It is one of the largest detention centres which inhibits 15,000+ prisoners. The prison authorities have taken numerous steps to ensure good living conditions. The prison authorities  have taken numerous steps to ensure good living conditions, providing a dual water supply system, solar heating system, RO System,and sewage treatment plant. It is a semi-open jail and prisoners are allowed to work in PWD, horticulture, and other areas. Prisoners also run the canteen. To reduce the crime incidence rate, authorities have structured a well developed curriculum of education. Prisoners can also pursue their studies from IGNOU, and NIOS and get degrees. There are skill development programs also.The jail has also started campus placement mechanism, where prisoners can get opportunity to work in factories and shops after their term. 

The Way Forward 

It is very pertinent to understand prisons as a rehabilitation centre and these activities help them acquire skills and sustain their living when they return back. An estimated 95% of 2.3 million prisoners eventually return to society. Running skill development programs, delivering educational values will not only help them earn a living later but also help them be better human beings, and justice is eventually served. After all, there are some human rights that are so basic that can’t be negotiated away.

I would like to quote Charles-Louis de Secondat, author of The Spirit of Laws –

“There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”

This article has been written by Tanish Bansal studying at Shri Ram College of Commerce.





Get The Connectere directly in your E-mail inbox !

Enter your email address to subscribe to The Connectere and receive notifications of our new content on your E-Mail