The Private Prison Industry in the United States

The Private Prison Industry in the United States


Although legal punishment and the imprisonment have been often been considered state functions, its implementation has sometimes been placed in the hands of private and profit oriented- corporations. To meet the demand for prison spaces, and to respond to court orders concerning overcrowding, and to accommodate tight budgets, states have contracted running of prisons to private corporations. An arrangement which many studies agree has considerably reduced overcrowding in public prison, but it has not been without opposition from various interest groups.


The correction system of the United States has experienced startling growth in the past few decades with a more than 400 percent increase in the prison population, coupled with a non-corresponding expansion in prison facilities. By the end of 2010, at least 2.5 million adults were incarcerated in various government prisons, with an additional 5.1 million adults on parole or probation. Globally, the United States has more prisoners than any other country not only in absolute numbers but also on a per-capita basis. While the United States hosts 5 percent of world human population, it accommodates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The growth in inmate population has beendriven by tough crime laws, increased rates of prisoner recidivism as well as stringent drug enforcement.As a result, there has been an increased need for the services of private prisons, although, such arrangements have attracted support and opposition in equal measure. Nearly all new U.S prisons opened from 2000 to 2005 were private facilities. As at 2010, private prisons housed 10% of US inmates, including more than 16% of federal prisoners(Price & Morris, 2012).This paper presents an analysis of the private prison industry in the United States. It provides an assessment of private prisons in the United States, presenting the arguments for and against private prisons, the problems associated with private prisons as well as the need for such institutions.


The Private Prison Industry in the United States

Local, state or federal governments are usually confronted with overcrowded facilities, court orders that demand speedy reforms,and voter rejection of prisons construction bond issues. This coupled with mandatorysentencing legislations, hardening public attitudes and a war on drugs; governments are willing to adopt alternatives to lessen the strain. This has been achieved by reducing prison population or efficiently using existing prison capacity. Some of the available options have included policies of selective incarceration, emergency early release provisions, home confinement and community correction. Additional alternatives have includedcontracting other jurisdictions for prison space, intensive supervision probation, and increased use of fines.However, one of the more employed approaches is contracting the private sector to operate prisons.A private prison has been defined as a facility in which prisoners are legally confined for profit. Such institutions enter into an agreement with the government that commit prisoners, and thereafter they pay a monthly or per diem rate for every prisoner confined in the facility.

Arguments for the Private Prison Industry

Various argumentshave been placedto support the use of private prisons.The key argument has been the ability of such institutions to accommodate inmates and therefore solve the overcrowding problem in public prisons. This central argument for such facilities has been backed by other arguments such as performance arguments, transparency and accountability arguments, and cost savings arguments. The arguments take on three positions. These are; private prisons can be profitably managed at a “net savings” to government and taxpayers, which can be achieved while providing equal or better quality of service to inmates than public prisons (Chambliss, 2011).Proponents also state that the mechanisms of contractual agreements and the accountability for meeting the agreements provide increased transparency over public prisons. Further, proponentsof prison privatization argue that privatization of prisons createsa cost-effective and efficient way of dealing with imprisonment and thus represents good stewardship of public resources. However, the ability of corporations to profitably run prisons at a net savings for taxpayers is the most central argument for pursuing privatization. The positionis that the profit motive of private facilities promotes fiduciary responsibility, innovation and efficiency, all which go towards influencing the bottom-line for taxpayers.

Arguments against the Private Prison Industry

While privatization of prisons has been hailed as a good solution to the overcrowding problem in state prisons, opponents of prison privatization have tended to disagree about the comparability or advantages of private prisons. Questions have risen with regards to their perceived cost-efficiency, effectiveness, and ethical ground.Correctional officers unions have opposed them for the lower wages and fewer benefits that they offer their correctional workers.

Ethically, there is the question of whether private companies should be responsible for carrying out the government’s function of punishment and detention. There is also the unseeming ethical issue about profiteering from the business of punishing others.The argument has been that the profit motive is likely to encourage cost-cutting measures that will detract from the “quality” of the imprisonment term (DeJong, Smith, & Cole, 2012).

Problems Identified with the Private Prison Industry

Privatization of prisons is not without its problems. It has been accusedof putting the profit motive ahead of inmate interests and therefore corrupted the purpose of incarceration. Its delegation of coercive power to private hands has also been termed unlawful. With regards to cost, prisonprivatization contrary to popular belief is more costly. This is because it adds a profit margin to all costs, and in the long run, due to high capital costs that inhibit market entry may restrict competition thus costing more.Ethically, contracting is blamed for creating incentives to lobby laws and policies that serve special private interests. By expanding their capacity and making imprisonment more feasible and efficient, they expand the use of incarceration and weaken the search for alternative approaches to addressing crime. Also Contracting on a per diem, per inmate also presents private prisons with an incentive to prolong prisoners’ stay in such facilities.The private prison industry also jeopardizes public and inmate safety through inadequate staff levels and it limits the capacity of the government to respond to emergencies such as escapes, strikes, fires, or riots. It also limits the government’s own ability to provide services making it further dependent on the prison industry contractors(Kirchhoff, 2010).

Are these prisons equipped to handle the above Issues?

Whereas private prisons have faced with challenges and opposition, they have taken steps to address them. For example, the removal of the per diem/per inmate arrangement in some states, the participation of government agencies in the running of prisons, and allowing impromptu audits to ensure inmate wellbeing and safety is not jeopardized. Additionally, staffing levels have been increased and in some states there is liaison with local law enforcing agencies in case of prisoner breakout or strike. However, while these steps have been taken to improve the experience of prisons, prison privatization is still viewed with antipathy.

How an Inmate Ends Up in a Private Prison

The only reason as to why states and the federal governments opt for private prisons is the unavailability of space in public prison.  This forms the reason for a prisoner to be sent to private prisons.The legislature opts to support the use of private prisons to avail enough housing for prisoners. In most states, placement in private prisons is primarily dependent on the availability bed space. Most states screen prisoners for a possible transfer. The prisoners are assessed in various areas such as victims’ concern and separation needs as well as the needs of the concerned department. Additionally, other factors such as the needs of the offenders and the available programs in various private prisons are also taken into consideration when making a decision on sending a prisoner to a private prison facility.


While it may be accepted that privatization of prisons has to a very large extent solved the problem of overcrowding in public prisons it has failed to facilitate the achievement of some of the critical goals of incarceration. These includeprisoner rehabilitation and recidivism rate reduction. This has been occasioned by the conflict of interest that such institutions are faced with in regards to their profit maximization goal, where they have a low incentive to promote prisoner rehabilitation.



Chambliss, W. J. (2011). Corrections (Vol. Volume 4 of Key Issues in Crime and Punishment). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

DeJong, C., Smith, C., & Cole, G. (2012). The American System of Criminal Justice (13 ed.). Belmont, California: Cengage Learning.

Kirchhoff, S. M. (2010). Economic Impacts of Prison Growth. DIANE Publishing.

Price, B. E., & Morris, J. C. (2012). Prison Privatization: The Many Facets of a Controversial Industry, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.

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