Private Prisons Essay

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Private prisons are detention places where control of those who have been sentenced is awarded or contracted out to a nongovernmental entity (i.e., private company).  At least two situations may be at play with private prisons. A public or government detention facility allows the private company to assume control over the existing building containing prisoners; or a private corporation may build a new prison to house prisoners that the government allocates to the corporation to manage. Of all state and federal prisoners in the United States, currently about 8 percent are managed by private prisons. Given the tenfold increase in the number of prisoners over the last 40 years, along with the fourfold increase in the imprisonment rate, there have been a number of corresponding challenges to confining prisoners. Issues challenging private prisons range from economic to legal and moral and by no means are straightforward.


Private prisons in the United States go back as early as colonial times with private and public partnerships involving prisoners. Local businesses around the time of the American  Revolution would pay for prisoners in order to harness and take advantage of their labor. During the Civil War, local businesses such as furniture producers and coal mining companies tried to use prisoner labor to expand their profits. The governments from  which  these  local  businesses  contracted prison labor often needed the quick cash afforded to them by these arrangements.

During the mid-1980s, private prisons experienced a resurgence. This time, however, instead of local/small-scale businesses contracting the use of prisoners for their labor, it was large national or multinational corporations partnering with government to manage prisoners or detention facilities. From the 1980s until 2000, there was a tremendous growth of private prisons, although expansion leveled off thereafter.

Major Companies That run Private Prisons

A few major corporations manage nearly three-fourths of all private prisons. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) started in the early 1980s, taking over a single correctional  facility in Tennessee  and  expanding nationwide. The GEO Group (originally Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) is a publicly traded  company.  In

2005, it acquired Correctional Services Corporation, selling off its juvenile services to Youth Services International. Like CCA, GEO is a multinational organization. Cornell Companies, another major player in the private prisoner industry, was acquired by GEO in 2010. Its focus is on rehabilitation for both juveniles and adults.

Arguments in Favor of Private Prisons

Private  prisons  are believed by proponents to have lower costs, relative to state or federal prisons, associated with managing prisoners. Part of the reason for these lower costs is due to less overtime and fewer benefits for private workers than for public service workers.

Performance  by  private  prison  personnel is another factor  viewed favorably  over that thought  to  be  demonstrated  by  nonprivate prison personnel. The companies that run private prisons claim that because they are awarded the opportunity to manage prisoners, this then carries with it the pressure to execute their performance in a manner better than public service workers.

Private  prisons  offer  government the  ability to transfer certain prisoners out of government facilities to create more space and reduce overcrowding. Additionally, private companies that  build their own prisons  potentially have greater flexibility in the design of the facility. Privately constructed detention facilities can be expanded or modified more easily than government-run prisons. Because private prisons often times  manage  less violent  prisoners  and  run prisons with lower security levels, they are better able to alter the structure of the prisons they operate  than  government-run prisons,  which tend to be older and must maintain a higher level of security. Proponents also argue that because private  companies  build prisons,  local economies benefit from jobs created by the construction process.

Arguments Against Private Prisons

To counter private-firm-based studies that claim that  private  prisons  save money,  government based studies point out that private prisons tend to weed out high-cost inmates, sending them to government-run prisons while accepting management  of the low-cost  prisoners.  Moreover, other government based reports suggest that private prisons pursue cost reduction (i.e., less staff and lighter training) at the expense of security. The evidence highlights  higher  violence rates within and various escapes from private prisons.

Private prisons are believed to be challenged when  it comes to transparency. Being profit-driven is considered to be a barrier to revealing completely all that is going on inside a private prison.

The responsibility of passing on the punishment function of a prison to private workers is a topic of considerable debate. Because one of the core functions of a prison is to deliver punishment, the corporations that run the private prisons do not have policy history or experience in this regard, given that their policies have focused on regulations and on the delivery of benefits to their clientele.

Longer sentencing  and other  “get tough  on crime” strategies (e.g., “three-strikes” laws) along with a profit motive are believed to influence private prisons in such a way as to have them hold on longer to prisoners than would be the case in government run prisons. Three states have issued bans on the privatization of prisons because of the above-mentioned considerations.


In comparing private versus public prisons and detention facilities, a robust array of valid and reliable performance measures are required. The ethical concerns of prison management must be fairly measured. To achieve a useful evaluation, there must be controls in place.

Prisons being compared should be at the same level of security. Additionally, the prisons should be similar in the age of their structures. The management style overseeing the prisons should be taken into consideration.

When cost is investigated, this should include an assessment of indirect costs as well as direct costs. Costs for medical care and other health-related services (e.g., hospital security) need to be taken into account.

In addition to ensuring that  controls  are in place when making comparisons between private prisons and public prisons, researchers and prison professionals must focus on how well facilities meet the purposes of incarceration, including the rehabilitation of prisoners. Prisoners’ safety and basic human rights must also be demonstrated to be secure.


  1. Hallett, Michael. Private Prisons in America: A Critical Race Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  2. Logan, Charles H. Private Prisons: Cons and Pros. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  3. Lukemeyer, Anna and Richard C. McCorkle. “Privatization of Prisons: Impact on Prison Conditions.” American Review of Public Administration, v.36/2 (2006).
  4. Makarios, Matthew D. and Jeff Maahs. “Is Private Time Quality Time? A National Private-Public Comparison of Prison Quality.” Prison Journal, v.92/3 (2012).
  5. Price, Byron Eugene. Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

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