For-profit Prison Growth Raises Policy Concerns

February 26, 2013 in Top News, U.S. News

A private prison in California

Pictured is a dormitory-style private prison in California. Many of the incarcerated are illegal immigrants. Source: National Prison Divestment Campaign.

Between 1970 and 2005, the U.S. prison population increased by about 700 percent, according to statistics gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union. Also according to ACLU, Federal Bureau of Justice statistics show for-profit companies control about 18 percent of federal prisoners and 6.7 percent of all state prisoners. Private prisons accounted for almost all new prisons built between 2000 and 2005. Close to half of all federally detained immigrants are shipped to for-profit prisons, according to Detention Watch Network. Growth in the role of for-profit companies in the American penal systems has invited serious critique of this trend.

“Although hyperbole continues to propel prison privatization policy along, research findings are incontrovertible: even in the best private prisons, quality of prisoner care is no better than in public prisons and the cost advantage of privatization, which initially accounted for minimal savings, is steadily eroding as the private prison industry matures. The big promises of prison privatization – less cost, higher quality – have simply not materialized. Despite these disappointing results, prison privatization advocacy maintains traction in diverse jurisdictions as policymakers from Ohio to Florida and from Maine to California seek expedient solutions to budget shortfalls triggered by a lingering great recession,”  wrote Richard Culp, former member of the department of public management , coordinator of the criminal justice management major and deputy executive officer of the CUNY/JJCCJ doctoral program in criminal justice, in his extensive coverage of “The Failed Promise of Prison Privatization” on

Growth in for-profit prison systems also is spurring commentary about the role of such companies in influencing policy and their participation in politics. For-profit prison owners and operators and their lobbyists in Washington and state capitals debatably rely on tough drug laws and detention policies for their profits.

Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest operators and owners of for-profit prisons in the country, published in its 2011 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges asserts in private prison industry interests are the reason why the United States has spent $300 billion on new prisons since 1980, and why serious reforms in immigration, drug and penal policies have seemed impossible. Many private prison owners and operators are large campaign donors to “law and order” politicians, Hedges claims.

According to Hedges, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement imprisons about 400,000 undocumented people a year with an annual budget of more than $5 billion. ICE plans to expand its operations by establishing several mega-detention centers ─ most to be operated by private corporations ─ in states including New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois.

Privatization of large segments of federal and state prisons has become an integral part of how America handles crime. Clearly the performance and accountability of these companies will be a growing concern to public policy experts. The companies themselves will be exercising a growing level of participation in policy debates relevant to incarcerations.