Private Prisons: Pros & Cons

Instructor: Rachelle Fobbs

Rachelle has a MS in Forensic Science. She has extensive crime lab experience which includes training and testimony as an expert witness.

In this lesson, you will learn about private prisons, including their history and operation in the U.S. The pros and cons of private prisons will also be discussed.

What's the most important aspect of operating a prison - cost, safety, rehabilitation, overcrowding? Should a corporation profit from a prison, even if it's unsafe for the community and/or the prisoners? These are some of the issues surrounding private prisons.

What is a Private Prison?

A private prison is a detention center operated by a company that is under contract with the state or federal government. The company that runs the prison is paid by the government to house the prisoners. Private companies can take over an existing prison that was previously run by the government, or they can build a new facility that will function as a private prison.

History of Private Prisons

For many years, prisons would use private companies for services within the facilities, such as medical care, preparation of food, vocational training, and transporting prisoners. In the 1980s, prisons became overcrowded due to increased incarceration rates of drug offenders. Companies saw an opportunity for growth and profit, and the first fully private prison was established in 1984, run by Corrections Corporation of America. Other companies followed suit, and private prisons began operating in several states across the U.S.

Private Prison Statistics

As of 2015, approximately 126,000 inmates were contained in private prisons in 29 states, contracted by the state or federal government. However, this only represents 8% of the total prison population, as most inmates are kept in regular jails or prisons run by the government. State prisoners make up 72% of the private prison population, and most private prisons are located in the southern and western states. Texas and Florida have the highest private prisoner population.

The majority of immigration detainees are also housed in private prisons, which are contracted by the Department of Homeland Security. These inmates have pending cases regarding immigration or are waiting to be deported, and approximately 70% of this population, or 25,000 inmates, are held in private prisons.

Private Prison in Colorado
Private Prison in Colorado

Benefits of Private Prisons

Cost

The major intended benefit to private prisons is for the government to save money by placing inmates in contracted facilities. The company is responsible for the funds needed for daily operations, staffing, security, meals, etc. which will save the government money. The money paid to the private prison by the government for keeping the inmates is thought to be much less than operating an entire facility.

Population Control

Overcrowding of prisons is another major factor that has led to the use of private prisons. Contract facilities can typically house more inmates, which reduces overcrowding in regular, government-operated prisons. By reducing the population in regular prisons, the government may also save money on operating costs and require less staff and resources to manage the prison.

Inside a crowded prison
Interior of prison

Jobs

Private prisons must hire a full staff to run the facility, including guards, cooks, doctors and nurses, supply clerks, administrative support, etc. This creates numerous jobs for the community and supports the local economy, which is a benefit of operating a private prison.

Disadvantages of Private Prisons

Not Cost Effective

While private prisons were initially used to save money, numerous studies report that they are not as cost effective as once believed. Most studies that evaluated the cost to operate private prisons compared to regular prisons reported inconclusive results, meaning there was not a substantial difference in the operating cost of either type. Many contract companies refuse to house dangerous inmates, which leaves the regular prisons with the expense and potential difficulties of high-risk prisoners. Private prisons may also cut costs by hiring less staff, which can lead to problems at the facilities.

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