Prison Privatization: Pros & Cons

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  • 0:03 Definition & Origin
  • 0:56 Pros: Cost & Better…
  • 2:29 Cons: For-Profit &…
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

Private prisons are growing in number across the United States. Some people are in favor of private prisons and some are opposed. In this lesson, we define prison privatization and examine its pros and cons.

Definition & Origin

Prison privatization is when the state or federal government contracts with a non-government third party to oversee and manage a prison or jail. Why would a government do this? Prisons are becoming more and more difficult to manage. In the last 30 years, the United States has seen a 500% increase in the national prison population. Over two million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S.. That's a lot of people to manage!

The cost per inmate varies, but, on average, the annual cost for an inmate is around $30,000. Because of this overwhelming problem, many governments have struggled to balance budgets. In an effort to reduce costs, they have turned to the private sector as an answer. Today there are approximately 100 private prisons housing over 133,000 inmates.

Pros: Cost & Better Performance

There are some major benefits to prison privatization. One major pro of prison privatization is the simplified and reduced cost to governments. In general, governments pay private companies less money to care for a prisoner than they have to spend if they house the prisoner themselves. They also have to pay a consistent amount of money, which makes budget planning easier. This is because private prisons charge the government per inmate.

The math is easy to do. One inmate may cost more than another, but that is for the private prison to worry about, not the government. The cost is less because private prisons do not have to adhere to rules that government organizations do. For example, a private prison can pay guards much less than a government prison can. Therefore, the government spends less money paying someone else to watch their prisoners.

Supporters of private prisons argue that private prisons are safer, have better living conditions and lower rates of repeat offenders as compared to public prisons. As an example of this, they point to a study done by the National Institute of Justice that indicates private prisons are of higher quality than public prisons. They also point to a study done at a private prison in Arkansas, where 659 women were released from prison after completing a reentry program. Five years later, only 19% had reoffended. At the time the study was done, the average rate of repeat offenders in Arkansas was between 32% and 50%.

Cons: For-Profit & Lack of Transparency

Just as there are some major pros to prison privatization, there are also some major cons. Among them are potentially unjust treatment of inmates for the sake of profit and a lack of transparency.

As discussed, governments pay private prisons a set amount per month for each prisoner, regardless of how much it actually costs to care for the prisoner. Many critics believe that this government pay gives an incentive to the prison to keep as many prisoners as possible to make the maximum amount of money.

Critics believe that one way private prisons do this is by adding time on to the end of inmates' sentences for slight behavior infractions; up to 30 days each time. Critics also believe that private prisons cut costs to ensure they make a profit each month from the government. Critics believe that one of the ways private prisons do this is by employing only a small amount of guards for large prison populations.

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