Reported crime is at the lowest level in decades, safe alternatives to incarceration are an accepted part of the corrections system, and private prisons have not provided the cost savings and improved conditions of confinement that their proponents promise. Nevertheless, business is booming for prison companies.
Since their start in the 1980s, private prisons have come to hold 8% of all U.S. state and federal prisoners, including half of federal immigration detainees. A steady flow of inmates has meant huge profits for these companies. Just as steady have been the reports of abuse and neglect, poor management of inmate needs, and poor governmental oversight. Low pay, limited staff training, and other cost-cutting measures—the primary ways private prisons sustain their profits—can lead to unmet inmate needs and security issues, heightening the inherent dangers to staff and inmates in secure settings. Private prison companies spend millions of dollars on lobbying, political campaign contributions, support for legislation favorable to their profits, shaping public opinion, and research likely to support their practices, which leads many to question the prison industry’s influence on criminal justice policymaking. There also are significant issues with the government’s ability to effectively monitor what goes on at private prisons. Proponents’ claims that private prisons can provide higher-quality and more cost-effective service provisions, improved conditions of confinement, and economic growth in the communities where new facilities are built are neither borne out in research, nor seen in the scores of private facility incident reports across the country. The expectation that competition for contracts among free market players would lead to generally improved efficiency, quality, and cost savings has not been met. Nevertheless, proponents continue to use these claims widely as a basis for pursuing privatization.
This report describes the findings of conversations with several experts in corrections privatization, a review of the academic and legal literature on private prisons, and a media review of newspaper and radio stories on private prisons. It also includes recommendations for responding to the expansion of private prisons.
Secure, locked facilities designed for adults are the major focus of this report, although many of the same issues and potential solutions apply to other types of privatization, in corrections and elsewhere. Federal immigration detention and contracted services, such as in-custody health care and programming or post-release supervision and services, are also briefly discussed.