Criminal Justice

Private Prisons Are a Problem Rather Than a Solution


There are approximately two million convicts in American jails, about 1.6 million prisoners in China, and about 675,000 inmates in Brazil. The US prison population is equivalent to a quarter of prisoners across the globe. Countries seek to solve this crisis and use different modalities, which now include the incorporation of private actors under the leasing system, privatization, or a mixture of both. The prison population has not stopped increasing in the last four decades especially that of private prisons. While between 2000 and 2010 the general prison population grew by 18%, prisoners in private prisons increased by around 80%. In 2013, 8.4% of prisoners in America were in private prisons, according to data from the Department of Justice. Today the figure is higher. There are 130 private prisons in 30 states of the country, with 157,000 beds and two large companies control 80% of the business: the GEO group and the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). The two companies have multiplied their earnings and stock value by 500% in the last two decades. Private prisons end up increasing and worsening issues that they were created to solve through incentivizing increased incarceration. These prisons, although they are more expensive compared to regular prisons, produce lower value compared to regular prisons. Private prisons should be abolished.

Keywords: Private prisons, recidivism rates, public prisons.

Private Prisons Are a Problem, Not a Solution

America has more people in prisoners compared to all other countries in the world. There are more than 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, a figure that amounts to more than two million if detentions are added to local prisons, juvenile or immigrant centers, and military units. Blacks and Hispanics are the most numerous groups (Lindsey, Mears, & Cochran, 2016). This is equivalent to a quarter of prisoners across the globe, although the United States only accounts for about 5% of the world’s prison population (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). The prison network costs $ 80 billion a year, a third of the entire Department of Justice budget. The massification of American prisons is a cystic problem, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The prison population has not stopped increasing in the last four decades, especially that of private prisons. While between 2000 and 2010, the general prison population grew by 18%, prisoners in private prisons increased by around 80% (Lindsey et al., 2016). In 2013, 8.4% of prisoners in America were in private prisons, according to data from the Department of Justice. Today the figure is higher (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). There are 130 private prisons in 30 states of the country, with 157,000 beds, and there are two large companies that control 80% of the business: the GEO group and the CCA. These companies have multiplied their earnings and stock value by 500% in the last two decades.

The privatization of prisons in the country began in 1983, when Jack Massey created the first large prison company, CCA. The federal and state governments had a history of hiring external services from companies. However, it was not until the 1980s, with the consolidation of the declared war on drugs of the Ronald Reagan government, when the prison population increased exponentially, and the problems of massification and increased public spending arose (Pelaez, 2014). Hard-handed policies translated into the tightening of criminal penalties related to drug possession and sale, from Reagan to Bill Clinton (Lindsey et al., 2016). They increased the minimum sentences to 10 years in jail for selling cocaine and heroin leading to prison overpopulation (Kim & Price, 2014). In four decades, the population of federal prisons has increased 800%. Half of the prisoners are serving sentences for drugs and recidivism rates remain intact since the 1980s.

The UN recognizes that the world is suffering a global prison crisis, which has led to different solutions. Mostly, governments do not direct these solutions towards the reforming and rehabilitating convicted persons, but their purpose is to punish people through their imprisonment (Enns & Ramirez, 2018). Private prisons are a highly profitable business for corporations. This is how the prison population in the world grows exponentially, and that makes the privatization of prisons a flourishing business of very low risk because they are not subject to checks. On the contrary, the socio-economic problems only contribute more ‘customers’ (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). In most countries, mass incarceration is an overflowing ‘industry.’ In the case of the US, for example, there are 130 private prisons, and two large companies control 80% of the business, CoreCivic (formerly CCA), and the GEO group. These corporations had combined revenue of about $4 billion as of 2018 (Enns & Ramirez, 2018).

There are numerous socio-economic issues and justice crises in most jails, which has resulted in a logical misconception on debating between state attentions on the prisons versus their privatization. (Kim & Price, 2014). Experience shows in different countries that the privatization model is very efficient in terms of its private profitability and benefits the corporation in charge, but it is not in social terms or for the health of the country in general (Eisen, 2017). On the other hand, it is clear that a country with high crime rates, with corrupt justice, and politicians involved in private businesses without hopeful political projects, are the easy prey for these schemes.

The private management of prisons has as “inevitable” consequences the worsening of the conditions of imprisonment and the growth and increase of the prison population in the medium term, since the transfers of public funds to the companies are calculated based on the number of detained in the managed unit, and at a higher cost per inmate than in prisons administered by the State (Pelaez, 2014). That equation seems impossible to numerous human rights organizations and democratic research and control centers that remember that, by definition, private companies seek to maximize profit (Enns & Ramirez, 2018). These companies get many benefits and spend significant sums of money on lobbies, so they save large amounts of money on other things that are necessary for the prison system.

Problem Statement

The United States began using private prisons in the 1990s to cope with prison overcrowding. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of inmates in federal prisons rose by nearly 800%, far too fast for the Prisons Office to adapt. Decades of xenophobic and hard-won policies (zero tolerance) and a criminal system rooted in confinement have created the world’s largest prison population and a multi-million dollar private prison industry in America (Pelaez, 2014). The idea of ​​including private capital in the administration of the detention centers (except for surveillance and custody tasks, which are still in charge of state and Federal governments) was to take pressure off public finances and improve the conditions of prisoners through greater investment in infrastructure; but this measure seems to be more focused on meeting the needs of companies than of users (Eisen, 2017). Private prisons end up increasing and worsening issues that they were created to solve through incentivizing increased incarceration. These prisons, although they are more expensive compared to regular prisons, produce lower value compared to regular prisons. Private prisons should be abolished.

Research Hypothesis

The main hypothesis that will guide the current research is: Private prisons end up increasing and worsening issues that they were created to solve through incentivizing increased incarceration, and they should be abolished.

Purpose Statement

The privatization of prisons tends to result in a greater increase in the inmate population because management companies are called “heads.” “From the moment that more and more economic groups benefit from imprisonment, it is natural that these subjects, which are structured around the maximization of their benefits, increasingly lobby with parliamentarians, public managers, and the media in defense of imprisonment measures and criminal progressivity. For most private prisons, the higher the number of prisoners, the greater the profit. There is a need to abolish private prisons because they are not helping at all.

Literature Review and Definitions included in the research

The United States began using private prisons in the 1980s when harsh sentences were the response to a wave of crime in the country amid the drug war and made the prison population explode. In the beginning, companies began operating private prisons at the local and state levels and, from the mid-1990s, at federal facilities (Pelaez, 2014). The private prison industry began to move closer to governments and suggest that it could incarcerate people at a lower cost and help combat overcrowding. But at the same time, they also promised their shareholders that they could make a profit.

Privatization of prisons has not stopped growing since the 1980s when the first operator emerged, but in the last decade that it has rocketed. From 1999 to 2010, private prisons increased by 80%, far above the 18% increase in the total prison population, according to official statistics (Enns & Ramirez, 2018). The US is experiencing an epidemic of massive incarceration. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of prisoners grew 700%, thus boosting private companies (Pelaez, 2014). Alongside the growth in the number of prisoners since the 1990s, there has also been an expansion of private penitentiaries. In recent years, these companies have benefited from the effect of the economic crisis by offering supposedly lower costs than those in the public sector to governments in ever-greater need to save.

Private prisons are “private” only in the broadest sense of the word. The profits of these facilities are privatized, but as in any other company, the costs are socialized. State governments use taxpayers’ money to finance contracts and stipulate the operating conditions (Kim & Price, 2014). Many people see private prisons as an accusation of capitalism, without recognizing that these prisons depend entirely on the welfare of the state. Most of the more than 1.5 million prisoners in state and federal prisons work while serving their term (Lindsey et al., 2016). The labor industry in private prisons is on the rise in the current day society because convicts labor is paid for very cheaply. Convicts are only paid a dollar per day for any activity. However, there are numerous individuals and groups complaining about the low remuneration of the detainees.

The detention centers built after 2010 are focused on the maximum or high-security model, which allows greater investment in infrastructure and security conditions (bars, armored doors, security cameras), but without taking into account aspects of social reintegration or contact with families. This implies problems for family members of prisoners since prisons are geographically isolated and difficult to access.

Several years ago in the US there was a scandal known as “kids for cash”, when thousands of young people were sentenced without a lawyer, they received hearings lasting less than two minutes, and then they were sent to juvenile prisons although they had committed minor crimes (Lindsey et al., 2016). Prosecutors said that the judges received millions as a payoff for sending children to private juvenile prisons, to which US counties pay a general flat rate or a certain amount per youth per day (Aviram, 2014). The report concluded that after studying the ‘fine print’ of 62 contracts of private prison companies with local governments, 65% contain clauses that require the state to guarantee a minimum occupancy of 80-100% of the beds, although the rate of crime decrease (Lindsey et al., 2016). The industries make millions of investments and achieve great political power when they make their candidates be congressmen and even commanders, for instance the Geo Group and CoreCivic organizations, which could have given [resident Trump the campaign funds. Additionally, Marcos Rubio, who is a renowned senator in America, is also linked with Geo group of companies.

The privatization or outsourcing of prisons is an obstacle to the external inspection of the prison environment, have as a consequence the precariousness of the work of prison officers – who are replaced by employees with lower salaries and less training – and the “emergence of spurious relationships between private administrators and factions. In 2014, the Pastoral Prison published a report based on visits to eight prisons privatized in six different states of Brazil and managed by five different companies. Among the results are (Pelaez, 2014):

  • The cost/benefit of privatization has not been beneficial to the public administration;
  • the allocation of resources for privatized units reduces transfers to public units;
  • the privatization of prisons results from the absence of alternative and less punitive criminal policies for people in conflict with the law;
  • there is a high turnover in the personnel of the privatized units, with low wages and little or no qualification for the custody service of the prisoners;
  • the privatization of prisons is marked by the lack of transparency;
  • The disciplinary rigidity observed in all privatized units has generated restrictions on the rights of prisoners provided for in the Criminal Enforcement Act.

Privatization implies generating benefits from an extremely painful experience that is incarceration. Instead of pointing to the possibility of drastically reducing the prison population, a necessary way to minimize violations and killings that take place in the system, privatization is another step towards its growth and towards strengthening a society punitive (Eisen, 2017). The prisoner is no longer seen as the subject of criminal execution, and becomes a true ‘financial asset.’ The interest of the private administrator is to increase profit margins by reducing costs (Aman Jr & Greenhouse, 2014). Therefore, the financial allocations for public reintegration policies are not seen as an investment, but as an expense.

Another serious problem of the privatization of prisons is the replacement of the model of public legal assistance, through public defenders, by the private model. The majority of the privatized prisons, both under private-public partnership and outsourced get support is provided by lawyers hired by the management company, which means a clear conflict of interest (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). This prevents allegations of torture, degrading conditions, or violation of the rights of prisoners since the private lawyer will not denounce his employer. On the other hand, it does not matter to the body of private lawyers hired to get involved in the politics of incarceration or urging the private manager to guarantee rights.

With the use of PPPs, the state has become heavily indebted. The interest and the expenses to be paid each year for the maintenance of the buildings always increase the amount to be refunded (Aviram, 2014). These companies have very close relationships with political authorities to try to get more contracts. In parallel, in pursuit of the highest corporate profits, both companies try to minimize the “operating costs” of their prisons to convert the contributions they receive from governments to profit (Enns & Ramirez, 2018). This critically translates into having the staff strictly needed or saving money on maintenance of facilities, safety, and salaries, which often means hiring workers without the necessary skills. All of this can lead to an explosive mixture that, in some cases, has triggered mistreatment of prisoners, increased conflict and even the escape of prisoners.

States generally maintain strict oversight of the conditions of private prisons, but that when it relaxes or ceases to be regular, private operators tend to try to administer “substandard” prisons to further reduce your costs. In some cases, the situation gets out of hand, as happened in a corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in the state of Idaho (Lindsey et al., 2016). In early January, officials announced that they would withdraw the company concession following several allegations of worker violence and negligence. The CCA acknowledged last year that it falsified reports delivered to the Government about its employees’ working hours by notifying them that they were working at times when their jobs were vacant (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). This is not an isolated episode, because the In the Public Interest (ITPI) report includes very similar examples in other prisons in the country. In cases like Idaho, the public bailout ends up driving the prison administration budget, and it is the taxpayers who end up paying the money. It is the dark side of the height of US prison privatization.

The percentages vary depending on the state and type of agreement sealed. The states guarantee a minimum prison population, regardless of the crime rate, and they do it because these companies charge between $ 45 and $ 60 per day for each inmate (Aman Jr & Greenhouse, 2014). CCA made a profit of $ 3,356 per prisoner last year, while the GEO Group made a profit of $ 2,135 per prisoner, according to ITPI data (Liebling & Ludlow, 2017). The combined net benefit was 361 million dollars in 2015. “Its economic formula is very simple: the more beds and more people in prison, the more benefits they get and the less they spend, the more money they earn.

Research Design

The research design that will be applied in the current research will be a literature review on past studies on private prisons and their cost of operations, their pros and cons, and the analysis of data relating to the research topic. The review itself aims to examine and analyze the published bibliography on the research topic and gaining different perspectives on the topic. Statistical data, journals, past thesis, and similar research will be used to provide the required information. The training costs in private prisons, the recidivism rates, the training costs involved, and the staff’s pay of private prisons versus public prisons will be analyzed. Information from the CCA, the GEO group, and correction facilities will be used as well in establishing the pros and cons of private sectors.


Aman, Jr, A. C., & Greenhouse, C. J. (2014). Prison privatization and inmate labor in the global economy: Reframing the Debate over private prisons. Fordham Urb. LJ, 42, 355.

Aviram, H. (2014). Are Private Prisons to Blame for Mass Incarceration and Its Evils: Prison Conditions, Neoliberalism, and Public Choice. Fordham Urb. LJ, 42, 411.

Eisen, L. B. (2017). Inside private prisons: An American dilemma in the age of mass incarceration. Columbia University Press.

Enns, P. K., & Ramirez, M. D. (2018). Privatizing punishment: Testing theories of public support for private prison and immigration detention facilities. Criminology, 56(3), 546-573.

Hart, C. (2018). Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination. Sage.

Kim, Y., & Price, B. E. (2014). Revisiting prison privatization: An examination of the magnitude of prison privatization. Administration & Society, 46(3), 255-275.

Liebling, A., & Ludlow, A. (2017). Privatizing public prisons: Penality, law, and practice. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 50(4), 473-492.

Lindsey, A. M., Mears, D. P., & Cochran, J. C. (2016). The privatization debate: A conceptual framework for improving (public and private) corrections. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 32(4), 308-327.

Pelaez, V. (2014). The prison industry in the United States: big business or a new form of slavery?. Global Research, 31. Retrieved from

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