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Malcolm Feeley Discusses Entrepreneurs' Effect On Prison Privatization in Second Annual J. Hunter Tart Memorial Lecture

Malcom Feeley

February 27, 2014

In the second annual J. Hunter Tart Memorial Lecture,  Professor Malcolm M. Feeley of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, a revered scholar in the fields of criminal justice and the courts, presented "Entrepreneurs of Punishment: The Consequences of Prison Privatization."

The privatization of prison systems and related correctional facilities is the function of entrepreneurs creating a demand and supply for alternative forms of social control, Feeley argued.  This strategy of "privatizing punishment" is nothing new, he said.  It has a rich history dating back to the 18th century when shippers in England proposed "transportation," the act of pardoning a convict sentenced to death in exchange for him agreeing to be shipped off to America and into indentured servitude there. However, since private actors, in this case shippers, created the market for this new form of punishment, it only marginally reduced rates of incarceration, Feeley suggested. 

Similar strategies have crept up in the modern era reflecting the same entrepreneurial methods invoked in 18th century England, Feeley said.  Take electronic monitoring, for example.  Entrepreneurs created the demand for this form of correction by suggesting that tracking convicts through electronic gps-enabled devices could reduce the costs of administering a probation program. In the case of tracking, it was the private actor creating the correctional method again, just as they had done in the 18th century, without regard for correctional effectiveness, Feeley said. 

There are other examples, Feeley said, like 18th century social reformer Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, a prison designed to allow a single watchman oversee many inmates at once without them being able to tell whether they were actually being watched.  This was the invention of a businessman, Feeley claimed.  Bentham intended to make money off the prison system's need to reduce costs, he said. 

Feeley did not take a position on whether this kind of privatization could ultimately improve forms of punishment but, rather, suggested that the important lesson here is that, regardless of effectiveness, the privatization process has repeated itself for centuries with the consistent effect of increasing social control. 

This was the second annual lecture in honor of J. Hunter Tart, a member of the law school faculty from 2011-12, who passed away after a brief illness. 

Feeley commented that he was flattered to lecture in Tart's honor, who appeared to have shared the same curiosity and zealousness for figuring out the way things work and encouraging others to do the same.