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Private Prisons: Change in Policy and Practice

Today, the United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet it holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 1 it has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, surpassing that of repressive governments like China, Russia, and Iran. This level of incarceration is a result, not only of policy-making, but also of private prison lobbying—millions of dollars spent to advocate policies that increase sentences and incarcerate more people.

Private prisons in the United States were virtually nonexistent before the 1980s, when the War on Drugs introduced “three strikes” and similar policies that led to a dramatic hike in the prison population. With the increase in prisoners came the need to build more prison facilities. The government, unable to sustain the increasing number of inmates, sought privatized prisons to solve the dilemma. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners, and nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government.

On August 18, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the federal government will phase out the use of federal private prisons. According to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and, as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” 2

     Despite this statement, proponents of privatized prisons maintain that they are      cost-effective for the state. An early research study by the Reason Public Policy      Institute stated "Private prisons save money—10 to 15 percent average savings on operations costs, based on fourteen independent cost comparison studies.”3 However, a study by the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics found “no such cost-savings when it compared public and private prisons,” and others have found inconclusive results.4 But objections to private prison use go far beyond cost; whether the use of private prisons saves the government money or not, a business model driven by incentive to profit on the incarceration of citizens is in itself a danger to the freedom of society.

In a 2010 Annual Report filed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the company expressed concerns about the adverse effects of leniency in conviction and parole standards and sentencing practices on the private prison business. The interests of private prison corporations are in direct conflict to prison reforms such as sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration.5 As a FindLaw article summarized,

“One of the most perverse incentives in a privately run prison system is that the more prisoners a company houses, the more it gets paid. This leads to a conflict of interest on the part of privately run prisons where they, in theory, are incentivized to not rehabilitate prisoners. If private prisons worked to reduce the number of repeat offenders, they would be in effect reducing the supply of profit-producing inmates.”6  

Lisa Wade, a cultural critic and associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, agrees: "Companies that house prisoners for profit have a perverse incentive to increase the prison population . . . there is no motivation to rehabilitate prisoners."7

As early as 2000, state representatives such as Oklahoma’s Kenneth Corn (D-Howe) were speaking out against prison privatization on budgetary grounds. "We are neglecting our state prison facilities by taking budget funds from them so we can pour money into private prisons." He added that in Oklahoma, “The average cost is $37 per day for each inmate in a state-operated facility, compared with $44 per day for those in private prisons.”8  

In addition to charging more per inmate than a state run facility, private run prisons often compromise the health of inmates in order to save money. For example in Arizona, a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2013 stated that the facility had illegally mistreated Arizona inmates. They argued that, through the “grossly inadequate medical, mental health, and dental care they were given, it placed them [inmates] in grave danger of suffering serious and preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and premature death.”9  Because private prisons are motivated by profit rather than rehabilitative concern, they look for any means to increase and sustain their profits, whether it is through cutting the costs of health care services of the inmates, lobbying for policies that create harsher and longer sentencing, or by negotiating minimum occupancy requirements into their contracts with the states to ensure their prison beds are always full.

At a time when multiple organizations and agencies are working together to improve a criminal justice system that has proven to be flawed and desperately need of repair, the private prison industry is actively hindering that progress. The use of private prisons allows ethically void corporations to profit off the most vulnerable members of society: children; the economically disadvantaged; and immigrant detainees, who make up the largest private prison demographic. The Bureau of Prisons has been working to decrease reliance on private prisons and the Department of Justice will continue to support criminal justice reform at the state and local level.

Vicky Rivera
Special Contributor, COPS Office


1 All statistics in first two paragraphs from ACLU, Banking on Bondage (New York, 2011),

2 Office of the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Phasing Out Our Use of Private Prisons, [press release]  August 18, 2016,

3 Adrian Moore, Private Prisons: Quality Corrections at a Lower Cost, Policy Study 240 (Los Angeles: Reason Public Policy Institute, 1998),

4 Cody Mason, Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2012), .

5 U.S. Department of Justice, Smart On Crime: Reforming The Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century (Washington, DC, 2013),

6 “Private Jails in the United States,”, accessed September 22, 2016,

7 Lisa Wade, “The Number of People in Private Prisons Has Grown By 1,664 percent in the Last 19 Years,” blog post,, January 25, 2013,

8 “Lawmaker Questions State Funding for Private Prisons,” The Journal Record (Oklahoma City), October 2, 2000.

9 Caroline Isaacs, “Death Yards: Continuing Problems with Arizona’s Correctional Health Care” (Tuscon: American Friends Service Committee–Arizona, 2013),


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