US Private Prisons: Facts & Statistics

Who Owns Private Prisons in US?

Private prisons are privately owned and operated facilities that house state and federal criminals. The organizations that own private prisons are solely responsible for the welfare, financial burden, and rehabilitation of the inmates. That also means that state and federal government has no say in how they are run and how prisoners are treated. Private prisons are paid by the government a per diem, per inmate or bed available in case they need it in an emergency. Vacant beds can add up to a tidy profit for some private prisons. Currently, there are 130 private prisons throughout the United States.

The History of Private Prisons 

Private prisons in the U.S. are nothing new. The first private prisons existed in the early 1800s when England would farm out their prisoners to “prison ships.” Then in 1852, prisoners of one of these ships built a facility in San Francisco Bay in California called Point Quentin, which later became the famous San Quentin prison, at which point some of the administration was turned over to the state rather than kept private.

During the 1860s-1870s, prisoners were leased to local plantations, companies, and private industries to provide a cheap labor source. Before 1980, most state prisons only hired contractors for medical, transportation, food, and vocational services for inmates. However, during Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” prison overcrowding became a major issue. Private corporations saw an opening and took it, firmly establishing a foothold in the private prison industry.

From 1984 to 1990, more than 66 private prisons cropped up all over the United States to help alleviate overcrowding and fund a new source of income. However, in August of 2016, there was scuttlebutt in Washington surrounding cessation of the use of private prisons, but within a year, that decision was reversed. 

Since 1990, many more private prisons have been added to the mix. In some states where prison overcrowding is a serious concern, outsourcing makes sense and solves a few immediate problems. 

Famous Private Prison Incidents 

Corrections Corporation of America (known as CoreCivic) is the second-largest private prison company in the country earning $1.8 billion per year. Plantation owner, Terrell Don Hutt founded CoreCivic in 1983. Currently, CoreCivic has 90,000 beds in 65 facilities spread over 19 states. The owners of CoreCivic lobby strenuously for the government to stay out of private prisons and stop any regulations from being imposed upon them. CoreCivic and other private prison corporations have seen their share of issues.

A private prison owned by CoreCivic, Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, Oklahoma, was closed in May of 2004 after rioting broke out.

In 2010, three murderers escaped from Kingman Prison in Arizona (owned and managed by Management and Training Corporation – MTC). One of the men was caught after a shootout with police and returned to prison. The other two, unfortunately, committed additional crimes (kidnapping and murder) before they were apprehended and returned to prison.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Williamson County Texas held immigrant detainees ages two and up from 2006 to 2009. Due to widespread reports of poor treatment and conditions, the government decided in 2009 to stop sending immigrants there, and now the facility, owned by CoreCivic houses only female prisoners. In 2015, 500 female prisoners waged a hunger strike to protest against being held in this particular facility.

For 16 years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FOB) utilized Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico (owned and operated by CoreCivic). Amid reports of poor medical services, numerous questionable inmate deaths, and an inmate uprising in 2014, the FOB finally decided to call it quits with Cibola County Correctional Center in 2016. However, it was soon contracted with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit, who re-opened the facility for transgender ICE detainees. After the death of a transgender woman, Roxsana Hernández, there were again reports of inadequate medical care and abuse. 

Profit versus Rehabilitation 

The question of whether or not to stop outsourcing to private prisons is a concern that surfaces now and again. Rumors of torture, subpar treatment, and cutting corners for profit are the issues that drive these concerns. 

One inmate wrote in his memoir that once a prison switched from government-run to private, the controllers “laid aside all objects of reformation and re-instated the most cruel tyranny, to eke out the dollar and cents of human misery.” 

Unlike state and federal prisons, which are guided by strict standards and a process of review, private prisons have no such authority. Therefore, the data from private prisons on inmate violence, death, healthcare, and rehabilitation is nonexistent, making it impossible to accurately assess whether or not private prisons are safe.

At times, there is quite a controversy over whether or not private prisons are suitable, profitable, and even necessary.

The Problem with Private Prisons

Often corporations like CoreCivic, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and GEO Group are routinely criticized for understaffing to save money. There have been widespread reports of inadequately trained personnel working in private prisons, guards being paid as little as $9 per hour, and administrators refusing to provide medical care and education to prisoners in order to save money. A Time/Life magazine reporter went undercover as a guard at a private prison and confirmed all these rumors to be true.

The objective of private prisons seems to be about money and not rehabilitation. Since 2013, financial institutions like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, General Electric, and The Vanguard Group have invested heavily in private prisons and continue to enjoy a nice return on their investment. 

The problem with outsourcing convicts to private prisons is that inmates rarely receive the support and rehabilitation needed to cut down on recidivism. Therefore, many of those released from private prisons may end up back in public prisons, and the government and taxpayers will foot the bill, thus making private prisons less of a viable solution.

Private Prisons Dollars and Sense

Private prisons are contractors, and they choose how much to charge the government per inmate. Some may charge fees of $150 per inmate, per day. If they find ways to cut back on costs (fewer employees, lower overhead expenses, etc.), they could make quite a profit, and many private prisons do. The question is, do they save the government money and is it worth it? According to the Justice Department report, which came out in 2016, the answer is no.

Private Prison Statistics

Private prisons are big business, and CoreCivic has a significant piece of the pie raking in about $1.8 billion/year. Some additional interesting statistics include:

  • A 2016 Justice Department report indicated that private prisons had a 28% higher rate of inmate-on-inmate violence than state-run prisons.
  • Roughly 121,000 inmates reside in private prisons (only about 8.2% of the total prison population).
  • Since the year 2000, private prison populations have risen by almost 40%.
  • Texas was the first state to start using private prisons in 1985 and has 12,728 Texas prisoners held in private facilities.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses the highest number of inmates in private prisons totaling 27,569. The federal government’s use of private facilities (including prisons, halfway houses, and home confinement) has increased by 77% since the year 2000.
  • More than half (53%) of the prison population in New Mexico is housed in private prisons.
  • Only 28 U.S. states use private prisons to hold their inmates.
  • Most private prisons are located in the south and western parts of the United States.