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What Netflix Gets Wrong about Private Prisons

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Netflix’s stop-motion Halloween special, Wendell & Wild, is full of spooky themes: from demons to haunted teddy bears to raising the dead from their graves. However, one theme which Netflix insists on depicting as the spookiest evil is private prisons. Is this another attempt of Netflix trying to disguise an anti-capitalist theme in what should be an easy-watch kids Halloween movie?

The story of Wendell & Wild follows the orphaned girl called Kat who is joining an all-girls school which is located in the town she was raised in until her parents died in a car accident. In an attempt to bring her dead parents back from the grave, Kat makes a deal with the demons Wendell and Wild that she will bring them to the living world.

However, the company Klaxon Korp wants to demolish the town in order to build private prisons. As the Klaxon’s daughter, Siobhan, explains: “you make a pile of money for every prisoner you take so you pack them in like sardines, provide crap food, crap medical, dangerous conditions and zero rehabilitation.”

The movie clearly depicts private prison companies as establishments that treat prisoners poorly in order to cut costs and maximize profits. However, are private prisons the problem or is there a greater demon here?

While it’s clear that America has a problem with mass incarceration, private prisons are not the cause of this problem. For one, only 8 percent of prisoners are held in private facilities. If the problem was simply private prisons then we would see high incarceration rates with countries who hire private contractors at a higher rate. However, this is not the case. For example, England (plus Wales) and Australia hire private contractors at a relatively high rate (14 percent and 19 percent respectively), yet they have relatively low incarceration rates (1.6 percent and 2.4 percent respectively).

In addition, as law professor of Fordham University, John Pfaff states: “most private prisons are in just five states. There’s no evidence that states with private prisons have faster growth than states without them.”

This is not to say that there is not an issue with the treatment of inmates within private prisons. However, the issue comes from the fact that there is too much government interference in the prison system, not too little.

While the US has private prisons, it does not have a free-market prison system. While the prisons are privatized, their funding is socialized. The taxpayer is forced to pay for these services and the state can dictate on what basis the prisons are paid and which prisons get the contracts. As a result, just three groups dominate the US private prisons system: CoreCivic, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation. These companies enjoy the lax competition and the monopoly powers conferred by the state.

The issue is not profit per se; it is the fact that the “profit” is assigned by government instead of being earned on the market. It is a matter of misplaced incentives. As Siobhan states in the movie, private prisons want more people to go to prison and to go for a longer time. The state often enters into a contract with prisons and pays them per prisoner per day. However, this is true for public prisons as well. As John Pfaff comments: “it’s not profit. If you incentivize a public actor to act in a selfish way, that actor will act no more or less selfishly than a private actor.”

These contracts incentivize private prison companies to channel their efforts to support politicians who champion policies that would help them keep their prisons packed: whether that be police militarization, three strike laws, or mandatory minimum sentences.

It is important to recognize that the issue within the US prison system is not the fault of capitalism; it’s the fault of big-government corporatism.

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