Private prison

Private prison

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A private prison, jail, or detention center is a place in which individuals are physically confined or interned for profit. Private prison companies typically enter into contractual agreements with local, state, or federal governments that commit prisoners and then pay a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner confined in the facility.

Today, the privatization of prisons refers both to the takeover of existing public facilities by private operators and to the building and operation of new and additional prisons by for-profit prison companies.

Private prisons in the United States today

Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders.Schmalleger, F., & Smykla, J. (2007, 2005, 2002). "Corrections in the 21st Century." New York: McGraw-Hill.] Companies operating such facilities include the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc, Cornell Companies, and Community Education Centers. The GEO Group was formerly known as Wackenhut Securities.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) website lists a capacity of approximately 72,500 beds in 65 correctional facilities. [Corrections Corporation of America. (n.d.). Retrieved September 6, 2007, from [] ] The GEO Group operates 61 facilities with a capacity of 49,000 offender beds, [The GEO Group, Inc. (2005). Retrieved October 2, 2006, from [] ] while Cornell Companies has 79 facilities to service 19,226 adult and juvenile offenders in secure containment and community-based corrections. [Cornell Companies, Inc. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2006, from [] ]

Most privately run facilities are located in the southern and western portions of the United States and include both state and federal offenders.


Many organizations have called for a moratorium on construction of private prisons, or for their outright abolition. [Center for Policy Alternatives. (n.d.). "Privatizing Prisons." Retrieved October 3, 2006, from the Center for Policy Alternatives Web site: [] ] Several religious denominations have also joined the call, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian. Fact|date=January 2007 [ [ PCI Religious Statements ] ]

Proponents of privately run prisons contend that cost-savings and efficiency of operation place private prisons at an advantage over public prisons and support the argument for privatization, but some research casts doubt on the validity of these arguments, as evidence has shown that private prisons are neither demonstrably more cost-effective, nor more efficient than public prisons.The Sentencing Project, "Prison Privatization and the Use of Incarceration" (2004)] An evaluation of 24 different studies on cost-effectiveness revealed that, at best, results of the question are inconclusive and, at worst, there is no difference in cost-effectiveness. [Maahs, J. & Pratt, T. (1999). Are Private Prisons More Cost-Effective Than Public Prisons? A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Research Studies. "Crime & Delinquency, 45"(3), 358-371. Retrieved October 2, 2006, from SAGE database.]

Cost-savings and economic development

A study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance found that the cost-savings promised by private prisons “have simply not materialized.” [Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004,” April 2005.] Some research has concluded that for-profit prisons cost more than public prisons. [Dennis Cunningham, “Projected FY 2000 Cost of DOC Operated Medium Security Beds Compared to Private Prison Contracts,” 4th Annual Privatizing Correctional Facilities Conference, September 24, 1999.] Furthermore, cost estimates from privatization advocates may be misleading, because private facilities often refuse to accept inmates that cost the most to house. A 2001 study concluded that a pattern of sending less expensive inmates to privately-run facilities artificially inflated cost savings. [Policy Matters Ohio, “Selective Celling: Inmate Population in Ohio’s Private Prisons,” May 2001.] A 2005 study found that Arizona’s public facilities were seven times more likely to house violent offenders and three times more likely to house those convicted of more serious offenses. [Kevin Pranis, “Cost-Saving or Cost-Shifting—The Fiscal Impact of Prison Privatization in Arizona,” Private Corrections Institute, Inc., February 2005.]

Profit motives and public safety

Evidence suggests that lower staff levels and training at private facilities may lead to increases in incidences of violence and escapes. A nationwide study found that assaults on guards by inmates were 49 percent more frequent in private prisons than in government-run prisons. The same study revealed that assaults on fellow inmates were 65 percent more frequent in private prisons. [James Austin and Garry Coventry, “Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons,” Bureau of Justice Assistance, February 2001.]

Corporate contributions and sentencing policy

CCA and The GEO Group are major contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington, D.C. based public policy organization that develops model legislation that advances tough-on-crime legislation and free-market principles such as privatization.

Under their Criminal Justice Task Force, ALEC has developed and helped to successfully implement in many states “tough on crime” initiatives including “Truth in Sentencing” and “Three Strikes” laws. Corporations provide most of the funding for ALEC’s operating budget and influence its political agenda through participation in policy task forces. ALEC’s corporate funders include CCA and The GEO Group. In 1999, CCA made the President’s List for contributions to ALEC’s States and National Policy Summit; Wackenhut also sponsored the conference. Past cochairs of the Criminal Justice Task Force have included Brad Wiggins, then Director of BusinessDevelopment at CCA and now a Director of Customer Relations, and John Rees, a CCA vice president.

By funding and participating in ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Forces, critics argue, private prison companies directly influence legislation for tougher, longer sentences. []

Attempts to limit privatization and increase oversight

Some states have imposed bans, population limits, and strict operational guidelines on private prisons:

* Banning privatization of state and local facilities—Louisiana enacted a moratorium on private prisons in 2001. In 2000, Illinois and New York enacted laws that ban the privatization of prisons, correctional facilities and any services related to their operation.

* Banning speculative private prison construction—For-profit prison companies have built new prisons before they were awarded privatization contracts in order to lure state contract approval. In 2001, Wisconsin’s joint budget committee recommended language to ban all future speculative prison construction in the state. Such anticipatory building dates back to at least 1997, when Corrections Corporation of America built a 2,000-bed facility in California at a cost of $80-100 million with no contract from the California Department of Corrections; a CCA official was quoted as saying, "If we build it, they will come." [citation|author=Gunnison, Robert B.|year=1997|title=Privately Run Prison Planned for Mojave: Firm Says It Can House Inmates Cheaper|publisher=San Francisco Chronicle|date=August 1|page=A22]

* Banning exportation and importation of prisoners—To ensure that the state retains control over the quality and security of correctional facilities, North Dakota passed a bill in 2001 that banned the export of Class A and AA felons outside the state. Similarly, Oregon allowed an existing exportation law to sunset in 2001, effectively banning the export of prisoners. Several states have considered banning the importation of prisoners to private facilities.

* Requiring standards comparable to state prisons—New Mexico enacted legislation that transfers supervision of private prisons to the state Secretary of Corrections, ensuring that private prisons meet the same standards as public facilities. In 2001, Nebraska legislation that requires private prisons to meet public prison standards was overwhelmingly approved by the legislature, but pocket-vetoed by the governor. Oklahoma passed a law in 2005 that requires private prisons to have emergency plans in place and mandates state notification of any safety incidents.

Early history of prison privatization

The privatization movement can be traced to the contracting out of confinement and care of prisoners after the American Revolution. Deprived of the ability to ship criminals and undesirables to the Colonies, Great Britain began placing them on hulks moored in English ports. [ Charles Campbell, "The Intolerable Hulks." (2001) ]

In the U.S., the first for-profit prison was San Quentin prison in California. Opened in 1852, San Quentin was constructed and initially operated as a private enterprise. According to Schmalleger and Smykla (2007), “…after a number of major scandals surfaced surrounding the mismanagement of the facility… California turned San Quentin prison over to the control of the state government” (p. 552).

The partial transfer of San Quentin prison administration from private to public did not mark the end of privatization. The next phase began with the Reconstruction Period (1865-1876) in the south, after the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. Beginning in 1868, convict leases were issued to private parties to supplement their workforce. [Todd, W. (2005). Convict Lease System. In "The New Georgia Encyclopedia". Retrieved October 1, 2006, from [] ] [Zito, M. (2003, December). "Prison Privatization: Past and Present". Retrieved October 1, 2006, from the International Foundation for Protection Officers Web site: [] ] This system remained in place until the early 20th century.

Development of private prisons in the United States

Private sector involvement in United States prisons is not new — federal and state government have had a long history of contracting out specific services to private firms, including medical services, food preparation, vocational training, and inmate transportation. The 1980s, though, ushered in a new era of prison privatization. With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the “war on drugs” and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons.

The modern private prison business first emerged and established itself publicly in 1984 when the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was awarded a contract to take over a facility in Hamilton County, Tennessee. This marked the first time that any government in the country had contracted out the complete operation of a jail to a private operator. [Good Jobs First, “ Jail Breaks: Economic Development Subsidies Given to Private Prisons,” October 2001, p. 2.] The following year, CCA gained further public attention when it offered to take over the entire state prison system of Tennessee for $200 million. The bid was ultimately defeated due to strong opposition from public employees and the skepticism of the state legislature. [Eric Bates, “Private Prisons,” The Nation, Jan. 5, 1998, p. 13.] Despite that initial defeat, CCA since then has successfully expanded, as have other for-profit prison companies. As of December 2000, there were 153 private correctional facilities (prisons, jails and detention centers) operating in the United States with a capacity of over 119,000 [Number of Private Facilities by Geographical Location, 09/04/2001, Dr. Charles W. Thomas, Private CorrectionsProject.] .


External links

* [ The all-volunteer Private Corrections Institute, a comprehensive source of information on the industry]
* [ Corrections Corporation of America web site]
* [ Steel-Town Lockdown, "Mother Jones"]

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