Private Prisons: State vs. Federal

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Persons convicted of a crime are housed in prisons, which can be owned by the state or by a private company. In this lesson we will learn how private prisons differ at the state and federal level.

Show Me the Money!

Freddie the Fraud stepped outside the prison walls for the first time after 12 years. It was a great feeling to be free. But when he settled into his new apartment, he got a letter from the prison. It was a bill for $54,000 for the cost of his incarceration. Does this seem right?

Private vs. Public Prisons

Public prisons are owned and operated by a state or the federal government. The taxpayers bear the costs, and the operation is put under the control of government officials. Private prisons are built, owned, and operated by a private company that contracts with the government to house prisoners. The private prison is allowed to make a profit and typically bills the government based on the number of inmates it houses.

Which is Better?

Many studies show that private prisons are more economical and efficient. The primary reason is that the incentive to make a profit keeps the costs down. In public prisons, expenses are driven by budget allotments, and there is little incentive to cut costs. However, critics of private prisons say that the the data is misleading since more difficult and costlier prisoners are not contracted out to private prisons; these critics hold that many of the claims of lower costs and higher efficiency do not stand up under scrutiny. There are studies that support both arguments.

The critics also point to a lack of oversight in the inner workings of a private prison, which can lead to abuses and higher safety risks. The lack of oversight can affect a prisoner's due process rights as private prison officials aren't trained the same way as public officials are.

However, private prison advocates say that there is no greater chance for abuses or safety risks in private prisons as history is filled with abuse, violations, and prison violence in public prisons as well.

Federal vs. State

Federal private prisons are privately owned prisons that contract with the federal government to house inmates in the federal system. These inmates make up about 10 percent of all federal prisoners, with the majority of these being illegal aliens being held for possible deportation. One advantage of federal private prisons is that the entire system can be governed by one set of laws, and Congress can quickly act to change those laws to respond to problems.

According to the Bureau of Prisons Contracts division, all federal private prisons handling federal prisoners have to go though an accreditation process before they can be allowed to house federal prisoners. This is to ensure the prison staff is trained to maintain the safety of the prisoner as well as the protection of their constitutional rights. Extensive rules determine the level of training, and compliance is ongoing to ensure compliance.

State private prisons are privately owned prisons that contract with the various states that allow them. Currently, three states (Iowa, Illinois, and New York) have banned the use of private prisons. Thirty-nine states have laws allowing them, but 20 of these states do not use them anyway. Some of the states use private prisons for over 40 percent of their prison population, while eight states have no laws either way.

This highlights the one of the greatest differences between the federal and state usage of private prisons. Whereas the federal system can be managed by one set of rules, each state that uses private prisons can have its own laws and rules. This creates an inconsistency in the management of the state prisons.

One example is the trend in charging inmates for their stay. For example, in Florida the law allows a private prison to charge the inmates $50 a day, but it can't collect the funds unless the prisoner has sued the prison. Other states that allow private prisons to charge the prisoner can only do so after petitioning a judge to rule if the charges are warranted.

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