Private vs. Public Prisons: Differences & Statistics

Private vs. Public Prisons: Differences & Statistics
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  • 0:03 Public vs Private Prisons
  • 1:55 Differences in Security
  • 2:45 Differences in Isolation
  • 3:24 Differences in Costs
  • 4:20 A Case Study
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leanne White

Leanne has a master's degree and an independent licensure in chemical dependency counseling. She has extended experience in corrections and post-secondary education.

A prison is a prison, right? Not technically speaking. There are two types of prisons: public and private. This lesson will explore the differences between the two as well the history of privatization.

Private vs Public Prisons

Of the 1.6 million inmates in the USA, 8% are housed in privately-operated prisons. The other 92% do their time in public prisons. The first prison to become privatized was in the mid-1800s. It wasn't until the 1980s, though, when privatization evolved. Because prisons were becoming overpopulated during the War on Drugs era, public prisons contracted the confinement and care of prisoners with other organizations. Due to the cost-effectiveness of private firms, prisons began to contract out more services, such as medical care, food service, inmate transportation, and vocational training. Over time private firms saw an opportunity for expansion and eventually took over entire prison operations.

Public prisons are prisons owned and operated by the local, state, and federal government. Until the privatization era took off in the 1980s, almost all prisons were public. The government has control over who is sent to prison and for how long. They also have control over the early release of inmates. Since public prisons are funded by tax payers, they're required to make certain information public. This gives the government and public an idea of how the prison is being operated and how well tax money is being utilized.

A private prison is any confinement center that is owned and operated by a third party and is contracted by the local, state, and federal government. The government pays a monthly rate per prisoner housed at the private institution. The majority of privately-operated prisons are in the southern and western part of the United States and include state and federal level offenders.

Because private prisons operate under their own set of standards, they have the ability to accept or decline any type of offender. They are known, however, to not accept offenders who are costly to house. Medical conditions, mental health issues, and dietary requirements all increase the cost of an offender. Research shows that private prisons typically house less violent and serious offenders than public prisons, as this would increase the amount of security needed.

Differences in Security

When it comes to the safety and security of prisons, it was thought that privatizing prisons would make them more secure. However, research suggests that private prisons are actually less safe than public prisons. It's estimated that private prisons have 49% more incidences of violence and assaults on guards than public prisons. Inmate on inmate assaults occur 65% more often at private prisons as well.

It is believed that the reason private prisons experience more violence is because they do not require as much security based on the type of offenders placed into private prisons. As we mentioned earlier, private prisons generally accept less violent and serious offenders in order to minimize the amount of security needed. However, even though they accept less violent offenders, there's no guarantee that these offenders will be compliant while in prison. Research proposes that less violent offenders may actually become more violent knowing there's only minimal security.

Differences in Isolation

Isolation/solitary confinement is when an inmate is housed privately because they are either a danger to themselves or others. It's also used as punishment. Public prisons are required to report and make public how many inmates are placed in isolation or solitary confinement. In 2015, there were approximately 67,442 prisoners held in some type of restrictive housing at public institutions. One of the major concerns of private prisons, though, is that they do not have to report this information; thus, this makes it difficult to compare the rate at which private institutions are using it compared to public institutions. Because isolation or solitary confinement can be misused, it's essential to track how each prison is utilizing it.

Differences in Costs

As previously mentioned, prisons became privatized due to cost-effectiveness. The government found that by contracting out to private firms, they were able to save money. However, extensive research concludes that privately-operated prisons are not as cost-effective as they were thought to be. Studies break costs down into three categories: finance, construction, and operation.

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