The Privatization of Prisons

by Gabriella Finley

With prison populations rising too fast for government facilities to handle, a new resource was needed in order to avoid serious overcrowding: enter the for-profit prison system.The first private prison was opened as a response to a federal judge in Tennessee, who ordered the state to stop admitting inmates due to this exact issue. Thus, the $5 billion industry began in 1984 by the Corrections Corporation of America, or the CCA.[1] Today, private prisons incarcerate 9% of the U.S. prison population and 19% of federal prisoners, with 75% of all immigrants obtained by ICE housed in them as well.[2] The argument to invest in private prisons was routed in the idea that new construction designs, along with more electronic surveillance, would lead to larger prisons with less staff, and thus would save the government money. In 2016, it seemed as if we were making strides in doing away with the for-profit prison system when the Obama Administration set out to reduce reliance on private prisons and eventually phase them out. However, Jeff Sessions reversed this policy and expanded private prison contracts in 2017. Today, two companies dominate the for-profit prison industry: CoreCivic, formerly known as CCA, and the GEO Group.

The biggest concern about these institutions is that because they answer solely to their shareholders, and not the public at large, they have no incentive to actually rehabilitate their prisoners and lack basic regulation. For example, a Kentucky governor ordered more than 400 female prisoners to be removed from a CCA prison after learning that inmates were being denied medication and were routinely sexually abused by guards.[3] Additionally, the New York Times found that a private prison in California that mainly houses undocumented immigrants was serving inedible food to inmates, provided them with unresponsive health care, and was cited for extreme guard brutality.[4]

It is also extremely concerning that because these prisons profit off of increased inmate populations, they have no incentive to offer important rehabilitative programs and re-entry services to inmates. This does a disservice to both the inmate and their community by refusing to provide them with the tools they need to live a law-abiding life post-incarceration. With recidivism rates already high from governmental institutions, an astonishing 77%,[5] we can expect that an even higher percentage of prisoners from privately-owned institutions would find their way back behind bars following their release.

An extensive review of contract prisons was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in August of 2016, which found more than a few areas of concern including differences in safety. These institutions hire fewer guards and give them less training in order to save money, which results in more violence within the prison. In fact, studies show that private prisons have a 28% higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assault and twice the rate of inmate-on-staff assaults as compared to government correctional facilities.[6]

per capita inmate.png

(Graph: Office of the Inspector General, August 2016) This graph is apart of the Department of Justice Report, Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons.

These institutions also place prisoners in solitary confinement at higher rates as an attempt to regain control and employ about 17% more staff use of force than their BOP counterparts.

As Sen. Corey Booker stated, “attaching a profit motive to imprisonment undermines the cause of justice and fairness. This damaging decision cuts against our deeply held values of justice and liberty, while creating vast wealth for private prison operators.” [7] It has been established that these prisons are less safe and under regulated and they are damaging to our American values. These prisons are a black spot on an already corrupt criminal justice system and should not be in use.  


[1] “The Private Prison Industry, Explained,” The Week Staff, 6 Aug. 2018

[2] “The Private Prison Industry, Explained,” The Week Staff

[3] “The Private Prison Industry, Explained,” The Week Staff

[4] “For Private Prisons, Detaining Immigrants Is Big Business.” Clyde Haberman, 1 Oct. 2018

[5] “The Private Prison Industry, Explained,” The Week Staff

[6] “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons,” Office of the Inspector General, Aug. 2016

[7] “Booker Statement on Trump Administration Reversal of Policy Phasing Out Use of Private Prisons,” Cory Booker Staff, 23 February 2017

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