The Theory and Practice of Punishment: A Theoretical Consideration of American Private Punishment



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Punishment has prolifically been a necessity in civil society and a duty of the state to create institutional stability, to model morality, and to ensure liberty. However, recent developments in United States policy have sparked a debate regarding the use of privatized punishment through independently owned and operated prisons. Since the 1980’s, federal and state prison systems have contracted with private corporations to offset overcrowding and reduce state expenditures. This move has incited ample debate on the merits and ills of American private punishment. This literature has evaluative the performance of private prisons in arenas such as economic savings, recidivism, and prison conditions. This debate is valuable and offers insight into the outcomes of this punishment alternative, however, it lacks a theoretical foundation. This dissertation inserts a theoretical consideration of private prisons into the prevailing discussion. First, this dissertation examines the imperative of state punishment through a survey of social contract theory. This initial discussion establishes the relevancy of theory within an American contract. Next, this dissertation selects three prevailing alternatives to punishment and outlines the goals and methods through an individual consideration of each justification. These alternatives are presented through Jeremy Bentham’s consequentialism, Immanuel Kant’s deontology, and John Locke’s liberalism. Throughout these theoretical discussions, this dissertation applies the deduced mechanisms of punishment to the American contract and ultimately finds a multitude of inconsistencies with punishment theory and the practice in the United States. Finally, this theoretical approach is returned to the empirical debate through a statistical description of American punishment. The theoretical deductions from this dissertation are bolstered through these descriptive statistics and concludes that privatized institutions are opposed in practice and theory. The work in this dissertation accomplishes two goals. First, this dissertation is a novel addition to an ongoing debate that is furthered through theoretical consideration. Secondly, this dissertation has implications for policy decisions on a state and national level. Future work regarding private prisons can benefit from the conclusions presented here whether that work produces a more nuanced, academic understanding of private prisons or influences the policy decisions that affect prison punishment.



Prisons, Private prisons, Punishment, Political theory, Politics, Social contract theory, Neoliberalism, Punishment theory, Deontology, Consequentialism, Liberalism, Prison policy, Privatization