What Good Are Markets in Punishment?

Published: 2007

Armstrong, S.C. (2007) What good are markets in punishment?Prison Service Journal, 172 . pp. 1-4. ISSN 0300-3558.


There are two chronically unexamined assumptions about privatisation in punishment. First is the idea that it is a relatively new development. In fact, penal activity has always been (at least partly) private. Second, it is assumed that the state can create a market when and where it wants. This article aims to unpack such intuitions in order to expose neglected aspects of privatisation in punishment. I argue that the experiment with the kinds of privatisation that sceptics worry most about, private companies owning and running whole prisons, has amounted to a ripple rather than a tidal wave in the sea of penal activity. Attempts to increase the private sector’s role have largely failed to produce efficient markets. These activities have been transformative, however, by instilling a market ethos among public servants and a professional identity as business managers rather than as agents of social control. A case study of an American jurisdiction that attempted to privatise all of its youth justice institutions provides the data for this analysis.