Youth and Family Detention Facilities

Private juvenile detention facilities include jails and prisons (county, state, and federal) as well as alternative programs such as group homes, halfway houses, residential drug treatment, and mental hospitals.

The main companies involved in this sector are:
G4S plc, of Crawly, U.K. (LON: GFS, OMX: G4S)
The GEO Group, Inc., of Boca Raton, FL (NYSE:GEO)
Cornerstone Programs (formerly Rebound), of Englewood, CO (Non-profit)
Management and Training Corporation, of Centerville, UT (Private)
Mid-Atlantic Youth Services, Corp., of Emlenton, PA (Private)

According to a report issued in July 2011 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), based on a census from 2008, more than half of the 1300 juvenile facilities in the country were privately operated. However, most of these facilities are very small, holding less than a third of all juvenile offenders (roughly 25,000). That did not include youth in adult facilities, or facilities used exclusively for mental health, substance abuse treatment or for dependent children. The report showed a high rate of privatization of shelters, wilderness camps, residential treatment centers, and a low rate with large training schools or local juvenile detention centers.

On the one hand, smaller facilities are more treatment-focused and therefore more benign. However, as Michele Deitch of the University of Texas, points out: “programs around the edge of juvenile corrections such as group homes and treatment centers are increasing in number, especially as more and more states are adopting reforms to deinstitutionalize youth and keep them in small, community-oriented settings.  So opportunities for expanding privatization abound, in ways that are apparently consistent with the goals of most advocates. […] these small private facilities can ride under the radar screen for long periods of time, with little oversight or regulation from government officials, and little scrutiny from concerned citizens, advocates, or the media.  Abuses or lack of services can go undetected for years.”

Despite repeated reports of gross misconduct and abuse in privately-managed juvenile detention, the same companies continue to run these facilities. In 2013, the Huffington Post has described how youth detained at facilities operated by Youth Services International “frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades,” as public officials looked the other way. In another report, a facility run by GEO Group was referred to as the “depths of hell” by a young man who was once incarcerated at the facility.
It appears that private, for-profit juvenile facilities have demonstrated similar patterns as their adult correctional counterparts. Specifically:

  1. Efforts to cut costs harm programming and educational options, including reentry planning, college prep, and vocational training. Additionally, they lead to lower pay, less training, and higher staff turnover and vacancy rates. The combination of inexperienced, undertrained and overworked staff often leads to serious safety and security issues.
  2. Governmental offices do not offer enough monitoring and oversight, or adequate public reporting on performance and cost. The corporations, on their side, have no accountability to the public and have no transparency practices.
  3. The cost evaluation to the public is skewed by excluding costs that the public system absorbs for the private vendor, such as transportation, healthcare, and monitoring. Long-term hidden costs include increased liability, increased worker comp costs, increased law enforcement and court costs (due to riots and escapes).
  4. The prospect of increased profits is at odds with the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile detention. Private facilities almost always operate at 100% capacity, as they have every incentive to keep the facilities full. Simply put, recidivism is good for the company’s bottom line.
  5. Finally, there are the big ethical issues: Is this a form of commodification of children? what is the legitimacy of incarceration for profit? Other concerns include calculations showing how state and municipal budgets spend more on punishment than on prevention, proper education and support systems for youth.