Private Prisons in the United States

As of 2019, private prisons housed 8% of incarcerated persons in the United States – about 116,000 people, the Sentencing Project reported. These facilities are controversial, as they reportedly unload incarceration costs on inmates and their family members. Also, many argue private prisons profit off government spending and policies on mass incarceration. Several administrations have attempted to limit the activities of these companies, but it seems private prisons will be around for the foreseeable future. 

What Are Private Prisons?

Private prisons are third-party companies that handle the incarceration of offenders on the government’s behalf. Generally, the government and the companies enter a contractual agreement where criminal justice agencies commit prisoners to the company’s facilities per contractual agreement.

Usually, the contract is for the operation of the facility only. However, it is not uncommon for private companies to design, construct and operate prisons on the government’s behalf.  

The History of Private Prisons in the United States

In his book, AMERICAN PRISON: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, Shane Bauer explored the history of private prisons in America.

These companies began as slave plantations that transitioned after the Civil War.

The first documentation of private prison was in 1844 when Louisiana privatized its penitentiary nine years after it opened. The state outsourced it to McHatton, Pratt, & Ward. The company ran the private prison as a factory where inmates produced cheap clothes for slaves.

Not much is know about private prisons before the American Civil War. But, one inmate from the Louisiana penitentiary wrote that the company aimed to profit at all costs, damning the inhumane conditions on inmates. 

Experts point out the model remains in place today, as private prisons mainly report profitability rather than prison violence, rehabilitation efforts, or security.

Meanwhile, private prisons took off after the Civil War when inmate populations soared, and state governments could not afford to run their prisons by themselves. Enterprising individuals leveraged this opportunity, most notably Terrell Don Hutto, who founded the Corrections Corporation of America, a $1.8 billion private prison corporation now known as CoreCivic.

Today, local, state, and federal government contracts with some fourteen (14) corporations that run nearly 200 facilities across the country.

The Trend of Incarceration in Private Prisons

At the start of the twenty-first century, private prisons in the United States held some 87,000 individuals. But, compared to the total inmate population of 1.3 million inmates at the time, private prisons were a tiny piece of the pie.

But that pie has increased over the years. The population in private prisons peaked in 2012 with over 137,000 inmates. Then, it declined to about 116,000 inmates in 2019. These data show a 32% increase in the population of private prison inmates in the last twenty years. 

Of course, this is the overall picture. At the state and federal levels, there are significant discrepancies. According to information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and interviews with correctional officers, we see that as of 2019:  

  • 20 states do not use private prisons
  • 30 states and the federal government use private prisons
  • Of the 30 states, Montana held 47% of its prison population in private facilities
  • The major corporations are GEO Group, Core Civic, LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation
  • Twenty states have more than 500 people in private prisons
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased its use of private facilities by 77%
  • The private prison population in Arizona increased by 480% since 2000
  • The rates are also rising in Indiana (313%), Ohio (253%), North Dakota (221%), Florida (205%), Montana (125%), Tennessee (118%), and Georgia (110%)

The Trend Today

Political influences have long influenced the continued growth of private prisons. And each succeeding administration has different ideas and loyalty. For example, critics of the Trump administration point out how the former administration reversed the Obama-era policy on private prisons in 2017. Later, the Center for American Progress reported how private companies profited off Trump policies.

Meanwhile, following his inauguration in January 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order reversing Trump policies. The executive order directed the Department of Justice to phase out federal contracts with private prison companies.

Despite the executive order, states retain the prerogative to contract state incarcerations to private prisons. Thus, the private companies will likely continue to profit off government agencies that cannot afford to hold inmates, enabled by mass incarceration policies. So the question remains, how will states modify policies on mass incarceration?