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Private Prisons vs. Public Prisons

Pros and Cons of Private Prisons

There are two main types of prison systems in the US: public and private. They vary in how they're run and funded, the rehabilitation efforts they offer, the types of inmates they house, and the level of security each require. Compare private and public prisons to see what working in each would be like, as each of these factors affects the quality of jobs available for correctional officers.



Cells of Prison

Private Prisons vs. Public Prisons

There are stark differences between public and private prisons. When it comes to overall comparisons, privately run prisons are often less likely to report data on inmate population, staffing, or where the budget was spent. The main difference between the two types of prisons comes down to money.

Each for-profit facility or institution houses people who violated the law. They are run by private, third-party companies rather than the state government, who runs traditional public prison. Private prisons receive their funding from government contracts and many of these contracts are based on the total number of inmates and their average length of time served.

This means that the more inmates these prisons can hold - with longer sentences - the more money they earn. The private companies of today that run prison facilities for the federal government house 8% of the US prison population, which is rising. America has the highest prison population in the world, with 2.2 million people in prison, and private prisons are criticized as only wanting that number to grow so they can rake in more money.

Public prisons, on the other hand, were the norm until the 1980s. They are owned and operated by local, state, or federal governments and function as non-profits. In this scenario, the government controls which prison inmates are sent to. The government also has the ability to release inmates early. Inmates are monitored and directed by state and federal guidelines, and operations are funded directly by the government. These prisons receive their funding from tax dollars, so public prisons are also required to make certain information about the prison available to the public in order to provide them with an idea of how the prison is operated and how well taxpayers' money is used.

Private correctional facilities, in comparison, are not required to release information on how the money they receive is being used. Most private prisons are in the south and west, including both state and federal level offenders. They can accept or decline any offender they choose, and often choose to decline offenders who have medical conditions or mental health issues that make them costlier to house.

Research has shown that private prisons will usually choose less violent offenders because serious offenders require an increase in the amount of required security. Thus, public prisons hold more violent offenders and private prisons hold more nonviolent offenders; in fact, the majority of inmates in private prisons have committed non-violent drug-related offenses. While private prisons may be cheaper, they're also known to be worse for inmate rights and have a higher need of qualified correctional officers.



History of Private Prisons

Private prisons made a comeback in the US during the early 1980s, when Thomas Beasley, Doctor R. Crants, and T. Don Hutto began the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). This company, the first private prison company in the world, decided to run prisons for a profit. Before this happened in the 80s, private prison systems were rare.

President Reagan's War on Drug policies in the 1980s began to flood the prison system with inmates, and private prisons were created to alleviate issues like overcrowding that many public prison systems were facing. The CCA claimed their facility could operate a larger-sized prison with less staff than the public sector requires, instead opting to rely on electronic surveillance cameras. Private prisons were created to run at a lower cost than public prisons, cutting many other costs as well.

With the rising numbers of people getting arrested and given longer sentences for drug crimes, the number of private prisons rose dramatically. The number of private prisons increased from a total of five in 1998 to 100 in 2008. Due to the increase in private facilities, the CCA saw a 500% profit increase from the previous 20 years. The first private corrections company, the CCA (now known as CoreCivic), remains the largest today.

Inmates in private prisons often work, creating goods the companies can sell. Many legislators are not fond of private prisons because they create incentives that hinder rehabilitation and delay efforts to reform harsh sentencing laws or reduce prison population rates. Most private facilities, for example, have lock-up quotas that require a minimum number of inmates or the prisons risks paying penalty fees.

The Justice Department concluded in a review that private prisons were more dangerous and less effective at reforming inmates than facilities run by the government, leading to policy changes under the Obama Administration to phase out private contracts. However, the Trump administration reversed this directive in 2017, instead opting for harsher immigration and drug policies.

Private prisons also run many immigration detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which are often not included in the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.



How Many Private Prisons are in the United States?

According to the Sentencing Project, the nation's highest number of inmates ever are jailed in private prisons. Problems that exist within the system will only improve with policy changes at the Department of Justice. A good first step would be rolling back the 2017 legislation aimed at increasing the length of time a person can be charged for drug and immigration offenses.

Private prisons incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, which is 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 1,506,800 incarcerated people total in the US This number has increased by 47% since the year 2000, while the public prison population has only increased by 9%. This indicates we are reaching staggering numbers of inmates in private correctional facilities.

The states with the highest populations of people incarcerated in private prisons, which housed 20% of their overall prison populations in 2016 (BJS), include:

  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Montana
  • Tennessee
  • Oklahoma
  • Hawaii


Private Prison Statistics

  • Private prison facilities housed 18% of the federal prison population and 7% of state prisoners in 2016 (BJS, ACLU).
  • There are 1.6 million prisoners in US prisons, with 92% housed in public prisons and 8% housed in private prisons (Reason Foundation).
  • The average cost of housing a medium security inmate in a public prison in 2010 was $48.42 compared to $53.02 in a private prison (Reason Foundation).
  • 73% of detained immigrants were held in privately run facilities in 2017 (The Sentencing Project).
  • An estimated 49% more violent incidents and guard assaults are reported in private prisons than public, and inmate on inmate assaults are said to occur 65% more in a private facility (US Department of Justice).
  • In 2015, 67,442 prisoners in public prisons were held in solitary confinement, but private prisons don't have to report this information (The Marshall Project).
  • The average length of time a prisoner served in a public prison is less than half that of the average prisoner in a private facility (BJS).
  • The private sector has the highest population of inmates in drug treatment over the public sector, with 28% of the population in private prisons vs 14% in public prisons.
  • Today, one in five people is locked up on drug-related charges (Prison Policy Initiative).
  • The public sector requires an average of 58 more pre-service training for their new officers than private facilities offer new hires, and the private sector has employee turnover rates near three times that of the public sector (US Courts.gov).
  • Some states incarcerate more of their prison population in private facilities while 23 states don't work with for-profit prisons at all. For example, New Mexico sends 40% of inmates into private facilities, but Texas has the largest private state prison population in the nation (The Sentencing Project).
  • In 2015, the private prison powerhouses CCA and the GEO Group earned around $3.5 billion all together (Infogram) and over $4 billion in 2016 (Journalist's Resource).
  • A psychiatrist who investigated a Mississippi private prison found that inmates often dropped between 10 and 60 pounds, as they were severely underfed (The Salt Lake Tribune).
  • The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sends around 400,000 undocumented immigrants to be detained in a private facility each year, which is increasing the need for private systems (Truth Out).


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