There is a term out there that almost jars the mind. It is the "Prison Industry". That's right. Today (in fact, for years) we have an industry devoted to prisons. Various government entities are turning over (or building) prison facilities run by private organizations. They make a profit (as private organizations are supposed to do) by receiving payment from the government entities and, of course, controlling their costs. The thinking is that private industry is much more efficient than government industry and privatizing the prison systems will save the taxpayers money. Okay, fine. Whatever. I'm not questioning (approving or disapproving) the morality or wisdom of such a concept. My question is more at what their purpose would be. You see, any product on the market, from toys to prisons, has to have a purpose, a goal, a set of specifications to meet. You know. How do you determine if the private prison facility is a quality service? So ... what is the purpose statement of a prison? More broadly, what is the purpose of our penal system at all?
You'll likely find three distinct purposes for the penal system. First, there is rehabilitation. Second, there is protection. Third, there is punishment. That is, the concept is that prisons in particular exist to rehabilitate the criminal, protect society from the criminal, and punish the criminal. Now, I listed them in mostly random order. I think you'll find that most people don't actually hold to these three views, and they do that by changing their emphasis. We'll leave protection alone. Most people see that. And that one stands alone as something for society, while the other two are aimed at the criminal. So, is the purpose of prison rehabilitation or punishment? I think that, depending on your perspective, one will engulf the other.
One of today's most common views is that the purpose of the penal system is rehabilitation. In fact, we often call them "correctional institutions". The idea is to return these people to society as changed people, no longer criminals. To this view, the "punishment" aspect isn't so much punishment as incentive to not do it again. That is, if you make it unpleasant enough, maybe that will aid them in their rehabilitation. So, to this view, the purpose is to bring the criminal back to "normal" and return them healthy to society.
On the other hand, the other view sees the primary purpose of the penal system as punishment. They did something wrong. They have to pay. Now, once they get out again, it would be good if we didn't have them repeat the offense, so, of course, you'll want to rehabilitate them if you can, but the real purpose is punishment and the rehabilitation concept is just folded into the "protection" concept. They need to be punished for their crime, and if you can protect people from them repeating their criminal behavior by rehabilitating them, that would be good.
To determine which side you fall on, let's try a thought experiment. Suppose that modern science came up with a method whereby, in a thirty day procedure, a person would not repeat a particular crime. You know, some sort of genuine "rehabilitation". There would be no chance that they would come out after that 30 days and repeat the crime for which they went in. Would you 1) embrace that method and do away with extended sentences or 2) require that varying crimes include varying sentences? One is the rehabilitation side and the other is the punishment side.
I think that, for a large part, your choice of which of those two sides you take will be determined by an underlying premise. I think that if your basic premise is that people are fundamentally good, then your conclusion will be that we need to rehabilitate these fundamentally good people. You know. They're broken. Fix them. Criminals are maladjusted. They lack self-esteem and never learned the proper morality. They need work. Give them some means of better self-esteem, some job skills, some sense of moral values. We can rebuild them. On the other hand, if your view is that humans are inherently evil, then fixing them is literally an impossibility. You might try to correct those behaviors, but they will always be inherently evil. This side likes the term "criminal justice system" because it recognizes that crimes are acts of injustice and justice demands payment. Justice, you see, is "the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics." Thus, punishment is part of justice (ethics, fairness, equity); rehabilitation would be a side issue.
Of course, your view on these two points will largely affect your view on the quality of privatized prisons. We've gone a long way toward making prisoners comfortable. That's because the primary goal is not justice, but reform. Justice would want to make it uncomfortable; reform would want to make them feel better about themselves. If I am right about the premise of these two positions, I would also conclude that the prevalent view of the day is that people are basically good. Of course, that is neither rational nor biblical, but in this day and age neither of those are major concerns, are they?