In contemporary political discourse there is a fierce debate over the privatization of America’s penitentiary system. The late Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison articulates the foundations with which the penitentiary system first took root. It is not my intention to offer an analysis of Foucault’s argument, but I am interested in engaging in an ongoing discussion concerning the morality of privatizing the penitentiary system.
The private nature of a corporation is based on and fueled by the exchange of goods or services for capital. In effect, consumers pay for a service or a product. The question, then, one must ask is whether in the privatization of the penitentiary system investors and shareholders are providing either a service or a product. There are those that argue what is readily apparent, that is, shareholders are providing a service, and that service is the incarceration of human beings. Others, however, namely proponents of the rehabilitative facets of incarceration, argue that the product is a fully rehabilitated and productive member of society, once the prisoner has been freed.
It is my view that either argument for the privatization of the penitentiary system based on service or product is fundamentally flawed. First, if one were to assume the stance that the privatization of the penitentiary system facilitates providing a service, insofar as potential criminals are incarcerated, then one must also recognize that the same market conditions that apply to any market, including this market of privatizing the prison system must also, therefore, apply. Thus, market conditions necessitate that the market will always seek the lowest bid for the highest level of service, which presents the problem of the quality of service rendered.
For example, in the growing demands for neoliberal outsourcing of labor, a corporation would best serve its shareholders if it could outsource its domestic labor, which is clearly less cost effective, to international laborers and thereby increase their profit margins in the cost saved to employ an international labor force. This has become a fairly standard practice. Now, if we translate that concept of outsourced labor to our current discussion of the privatization of America’s penitentiary system, then I can assure you that the next logical conclusion that will surely follow is outsourcing our penitentiary system.
There is a difference, however, in discussing the outsourcing of say customer service agents, which replaces domestic representatives with international ones, and physically outsourcing human beings to serve their incarceration abroad. Though this would make a fascinating fictional account, it is unnerving to recognize just how close to reality these prospects are.
Human beings, unlike products, often reject any and all attempts at objectification. Granted, there is more than one exception to this claim. However, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted we are to be treated as an end and not as a means to an end. What Kant is suggesting is that we are ends-in-themselves. We are to be treated as autonomous human beings irrespective of the crimes we have committed (a further claim that is extremely controversial).
On the one hand, the suggestion that the privatization of the penitentiary system benefits us insofar as it provides a service necessitates a terrible volatile discussion on the outsourcing of human beings. It would be the end of the career of any politician who endorsed such a view. On the other hand, human beings are not products and to attempt to objectify their existence for a return on capital is a morally and ethically unacceptable.