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Private Prisons

  • New York City Criminal Justice Agency
Private Prisons
Arizona State University, USA
e rst notable use of privatized corrections
began in seventeenth-century England when
icas as punishment for their crimes. Contracts
were made with private merchants who would
then sell the individuals to farms in the colonies
punishment was used for nearly 200 years simply
because it was cheap for the state. It was not until
the American Revolution that transportation to
the colonies was suspended. England struggled to
nd an alternative location, which led to the prac-
tice being permanently suspended (Feeley, 2002).
e next notable use of privatization within
corrections was with the convict leasing system.
Similar to transportation, the convict leasing sys-
tem contracted convicts to do labor-intensive jobs
that many workers in the general public would
not take (e.g., working on railroads). e convict
leasing system was at times so successful that the
state made a decent prot through its prisoners.
Varieties of self-sustaining prison existed in the
United States well into the twenty-rst century,
most of them being located in the South.
e use of privatization in prisons began pri-
marily with the contracting of private companies
to oversee specic functions in correctional
facilities. Some of the functions included pro-
viding meals, transportation, and counseling
to inmates. As prison populations swelled to
unmanageable numbers, however, policymak-
ers sought the help of the private sector to run
entire correctional facilities. Understanding the
need that private prisons lled is vital to under-
standing how they came to be a more signicant
part of corrections in the United States. Most
notably, the loss of faith in the rehabilitation
model of corrections turned attention toward
the incapacitation and deterrence potential of
e Encyclopedia of Corrections. Edited by Kent R. Kerley.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118845387.wbeoc149
prisons. Several inuential works, such as Robert
Martinson’s (1974) frequently cited study “What
Works?”, supported the idea that rehabilitation
haps a deterrence-driven criminal justice system
inspired a major shi in policy that pushed more
individuals into prisons through determinate
sentencing policies.
From 1980 to 1994, prison populations
increased nearly 200%. e extensive use of
incarceration strained the resources of the public
sector to meet this high demand. Privatization
system was to keep pace with the growing num-
ber of individuals being sent to prison under the
sentencing reforms of the 1970s (Pratt and Maahs
2000). Simply put, public prisons oen lacked
the budget necessary to expand. Policymakers
turned to privatization, in part, to divert some
signicant expansion of privatization within the
correctional system is based upon the belief that
the private sector can provide equal or better
services than the public sector, and at a cheaper
cost to the state. Additionally, the private sector
can respond quickly to changes in policy without
having to navigate the “red tape” of government
bureaucracy. Not having this red tape, the private
sector has much more speed and exibility to
build and sta prison facilities.
In 2012, the United States experienced a drop in
its correctional population for the fourth straight
year. Glaze and Herberman (2012) found that
prison, probation, and parole populations all
dropped between 2011 and 2012. Prison pop-
ulations accounted for 35% of the total drop,
though more than half of the drop in the correc-
tional population was attributed to California’s
Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011. Overall,
correctional populations seem to be decreasing.
ere has been a slight increase, however, in
the number of individuals incarcerated within
privately run facilities at both the state and federal
level. Populations have increased by 4.8% at the
state level and by 5.7% at the federal level from
2011 to 2012. is trend can also been seen when
looking at correctional populations from the
broader period from 2000 to 2011. ere was a
10.5% increase in individuals held in privately
run federal facilities. e percentage change of
signicant at an increase of only 1.8% (Glaze and
Herberman 2012).
Private prisons have been the source of many
ethical debates within the academic community.
First, the lack of red tape within the private
sector is oen cited as a positive aspect of private
prisons (as it increases eciency), yet it allows
the private sector to bypass public involvement.
By limiting public participation, private prisons
have the ability to keep voters from knowing how
much a facility may eventually cost. Second, a
lack of accountability by private prisons is cited
open their records to researchers, journalists, and
other individuals or groups interested in gather-
ing information. ird, the use of privatization in
of individuals. is is problematic because, by
proting from the incapacitation of oenders,
prot-seeking companies may continue to nd
new ways and new populations to maximize their
gain. Concern about turning the punishment of
oenders over to the private sector may be exac-
erbated by a lack of oversight in private prisons.
e performance of private prisons is oen
evaluated in how they compare to public prisons.
For cost performance, Pratt and Maahs (1999)
found that the overall characteristics of the prison
(e.g., age of facility, security level) were the great-
est predictors of cost, and this was independent
of whether it was publicly or privately run. e
authors reviewed studies in which private prisons
fared better than public ones, and vice versa.
For example, privately run maximum security
and mixed security level prisons had a lower per
diem cost. Conversely, publically run minimum
security and medium security prisons had a
lower per diem cost. Most importantly, none of
the dierences between public and private were
statistically signicant. e authors do note that
there were circumstances in which privatiza-
tion was cheaper than public prisons through
contract-specied services. However, the authors
conclude that the use of privatization is unlikely
to relieve the strain on state resources.
In terms of care, Lukemeyer and McCorkle
(2006) found that private facilities outperformed
state facilities (but not federal facilities) when
measuring the proportion of individuals enrolled
in educational programs. Yet private facilities
had less program sta per 100 inmates than
both state and federal institutions. e study also
measured violence occurring in state, federal,
and private prisons. Approximately one-third of
private prisons reported no violence. Of those
private prisons that did experience violence, how-
ever, the amount was slightly higher than in state
facilities and signicantly higher than in federal
facilities. e authors conclude that any benets
of private prison administration, with regard to
inmate violence, are not universal across facilities.
Another way to assess prison performance is
by comparing inmate recidivism across privately
and publicly run facilities. is measure of per-
formance is unique in that it is measuring the
outcome of individuals post-release rather than
measuring their experiences while incarcerated.
Spivak and Sharp (2008) found that inmates who
served time in private prisons fared no better
than those who served in public prisons when
using recidivism as the outcome measure. Private
prison proponents have indicated that they have
a higher inmate program participation rate than
public prisons. In turn, the authors suggest that
future research measuring inmate recidivism
would benet from including data on program
participation while incarcerated.
Ultimately, the results when comparing private
and public prisons are inconclusive, and com-
paring both the cost and quality of private and
limitations. ese limitations include the fact
that prisons, in general, vary greatly from one to
the next before adding type of ownership into
the equation. is variation between facilities
makes it dicult to accurately match prisons in
research to determine variations in performance.
Researchers will also have dierent denitions
and measurements of quality, thus limiting the
generalizability of the results (Perrone and Pratt
2003). Ultimately, then, the many limitations on
comparing public and private prisons make it
dicult to reach any denitive conclusion about
which has the best performance.
e ethical concerns surrounding private pris-
their performance have contributed to increased
criticism of prison privatization. Yet Wright
(2010) suggests that private prisons may actually
corrections toward reducing recidivism. Specif-
rewarded for implementing programs that are
shown to reduce recidivism. e key is in their
contracts. Private prisons are unique in that
through agreements with the state) to employ
evidence-based programs that are associated with
reduced recidivism. As they exist now, contracts
are written so that private prison entrepreneurs
are typically rewarded for the number of beds
that they ll. is is the source of many ethical
concerns addressed previously. Instead, they
are rewarded for rehabilitating oenders, which
may also serve to bring more legitimacy to them
and quell public concern over the ethical issues
associated with privatized punishment.
Privatization is a rapidly growing international
phenomenon. According to Mason (2013), the
United States has the highest number of indi-
viduals held in private prison facilities. England
and Wales, Scotland, South Africa, Australia,
and New Zealand hold the largest proportions of
oenders in privatized corrections. A common
trend throughout international corrections is that
the number of privately held inmates is increasing
at an alarming pace when compared to the rate of
the public prison population. For example, from
2000 to 2012, England and Wales’s privatized
prison population grew by 140%, while the public
prison population grew by 32%. Australia expe-
rienced a 95% increase in privately held prison
inmates, while the public sector population grew
by 50% from 1998 to 2011. Japan, Germany,
France, Brazil, and several other countries use
privatized corrections but on a much smaller
scale. For example, Japan did not adopt a private
prison until 2007, compared to 1990 for Australia
and 1992 for England. Additionally, Japan’s pri-
vate prisons are reserved for rst-time oenders.
In contrast, Australia holds the highest propor-
tion of its prisoners within privatized corrections
at 19% (compared to 8% in the United States).
e high proportion is due, in part, to the fact
that Australia has a totally privatized immigration
detention system.
is privatized immigration detention is not
a uniquely Australian phenomenon as privati-
zation has signicantly expanded into the realm
of immigration detention in the United States.
e rise in privatization has grown parallel to
the growing concern over undocumented immi-
grants. is expansion of privatized immigration
detention is fueled by nativist attitudes and grow-
ing suspicions of migrants in a post-9/11 world.
It is important to note the heavy political inu-
ence shaping immigration as a problem in the
United States. Several states have made certain
Consequently, the undocumented immigrant
population increases, and this greater population
creates a need for immigration detention centers
that may prot from their existence (Ackerman
and Furman 2013).
criticism through the media. For example, it was
suggested that the American Legislative Exchange
Council (ALEC) and the Corrections Corpora-
tion of America (CCA) may have inuenced the
creation of SB1070. Additionally, 30 members of
the US Congress out of the 36 who supported the
bill received contributions from private prison
companies (Ackerman and Furman 2012). In
2009, two Pennsylvania judges were accused
of receiving kickbacks for sending hundreds of
juveniles to private detention centers, many of
whom had committed only minor oenses. A
gang-run prison in Idaho, a sensational escape
from a facility in Arizona, and the physical and
sexual abuse of youth in Florida are just some
of the depictions of private prisons in the media
that have contributed to their negative press.
ese examples raise concern over the ethics of
using a prot-based system for the punishment
of oenders.
e private sector has played an integral role in
the history of corrections, and it likely will con-
tinue to play an important role in its future. Yet,
rather than serve as a cheaper replacement for
continued coercion and control, private prisons
oer an opportunity to rethink the business of
corrections. Flexibility and innovation are oen
championed as leading reasons to turn over pub-
lic ownership of institutions like prisons to the
has been largely absent in privatized corrections,
and the promise of private prisons has gone
unfullled. As the United States moves beyond
its mass incarceration experiment, private prison
entrepreneurs will have to demonstrate that they
oender population. Doing so may require them
to nd innovative approaches toward translating
evidence-based corrections into practice.
SEE ALSO: Australia, Corrections in; Prison
Construction; Prison Labor and Convict Lease
System; PrisonIndustrial Complex
Ackerman, A. R., and Furman, R. 2013. “e Crim-
inalization of Immigration and the Privatization of
the Immigration Detention: Implications for Justice”.
Contemporary Justice Review, 16 (2): 251–263.
Feeley, M. M. 2002. “Entrepreneurs of Punishment: e
Legacy of Privatization.” Punishment and Society,4
(3): 321–344.
Glaze, L. F., and Herberman, E. J. 2013. “Correctional
Populations in the United States.” US Department of
Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs
Lukemeyer, A., and McCorkle, R. C. 2006. “Privatiza-
tion of Prisons Impact on Prison Conditions.” e
American Review of Public Administration,36(2):
Mason, C. “International Growth Trends in Prison
Privatization.” e Sentencing Project. http://
Perrone, D., and Pratt, T. C. 2003. “Comparing the
Quality of Connement and Cost-Eectiveness of
Public versus Private Prisons: What We Know, Why
We Do Not Know More, and Where To Go From
Here.e Prison Journal, 83 (3): 301–322.
Pratt, T. C., and Maahs, J. 1999. “Are Private Pris-
ons More Cost-Eective an Public Prisons? A
Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Research Studies.”
Crime and Delinquency, 45 (3): 358–371.
Spivak, A. L., and Sharp, S. F. 2008. “Inmate Recidivism
as a Measure of Private Prison Performance.” Crime
and Delinquency, 54 (3): 482–508.
Wright, K. A. 2010. “Strange Bedfellows? Rearming
Rehabilitation and Prison Privatization.” Journal of
Oender Rehabilitation, 49 (1): 74–90.
Further Readings
Ackerman, A. R., Sacks, M., and Furman, R. 2014.
“e New Penology Revisited: e Criminalization
of Immigr ation as a Pacicat ion Strategy.” Justice Pol-
icy Journal, 1 (1): 1–20.
Feeley, M. M. 2014. “e Unconvincing Case against
Private Prisons.” Indiana Law Journal,89(4):
Harding, R. 2001. “Private Prisons.” Crime and Justice:
AReviewofResearch, 28: 265-346.
Lundahl, B. W., Kunz, C., Brownell, C., Harris, N.,
and Van Vleet, R. 2009. “Prison Privatization: A
Meta-Analysis of Cost and Quality of Connement
Indicators.” Research on Social Work Practice,19(4):
Martinson, R. 1974. What Works? Questions and
Answers about Prison Reform. e Public Interest, 35:
Schwartz, M. D., and Nurge, D. M. 2004. “Capital-
ist Punishment: Ethics and Private Prisons.” Critical
Criminology, 12 (2): 133–156.
Shichor, D. 1995. Punishment for Prot: Private Pris-
ons/Public Concerns. ousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wright, K. A. 2013. “e Private Prison.” In F. T. Cullen,
C. L. Jonson, and M. K. Stohr (eds.), e American
Prison: Imagining a Dierent Future, pp. 173–191.
ousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Privatization of corrections is problematic in large part because advocates claim that private contractors can provide the same or better services at less cost than public agencies. This article argues that there is another, even more important issue: privatization is fostered by entrepreneurs who do much more than provide alternative sources of services; they create demand for and then supply new forms of social control. Indeed, the history of modern criminal justice is to some extent the history of the success of entrepreneurs in generating new or significantly expanded forms of social control. The article examines the history of entrepreneurs in establishing transportation in the 18th century and the modern prison in the 19th, and then draws parallels to contemporary efforts to provide private prisons, ‘community-based’ juvenile facilities, and electronic monitoring programs.
Full-text available
The movement to privatize correctional institutions has gained considerable momentum as the need to reduce the costs of incarceration to public agencies has become more critical. The empirical evidence regarding whether private prisons are more cost-effective and whether they provide a higher quality of confinement to inmates, however, is inconclusive. To help clarify this portion of the prison privatization debate, this article contains a systematic review of the evaluation literature comparing the costs and quality of confinement of public versus private prisons. In doing so, three issues are highlighted: (a) the conclusions that can be reached based on the existing literature,(b) the major methodological inconsistencies that have hindered researchers' ability to draw firm conclusions from the body of empirical studies thus far, and (c) the direction that future research in this area may take to advance a better understanding of the potential advantages and disadvantages of prison privatization.
Full-text available
Private prisons are here to stay irrespective of empirical findings for or against their existence in the corrections industry. It is necessary, therefore, to step back and consider them on a broader level to assess how they can benefit current penological practice. It will be argued that prison privatization creates an opportunity to reassess the dominant correctional philosophy in America. In particular, the contractual structure of private prisons allows for “what works” in corrections to be built into performance evaluations. The implications of this assertion for private prisons as well as the current status of the rehabilitative ideal will be discussed.
In 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice held that private prisons are unconstitutional. This was more than a domestic constitutional issue. The court anchored its decision in a carefully reasoned opinion arguing that the state has a monopoly on the administration of punishment, and thus private prisons violate basic principles of modern democratic governance. This position was immediately elaborated upon by a number of leading legal philosophers, and the expanded argument has reverberated among legal philosophers, global constitutionalists, and public officials around the world. Private prisons are a global phenomenon, and this argument now stands as the definitive principled statement opposing them. In this Article, I argue that the state monopoly theory against privatization is fundamentally flawed. The Article challenges the historical record and philosophy of the state on which the theory is based, and then explores two other issues the theory wholly ignores: private custodial arrangements in other settings that are widely regarded as acceptable if not exemplary and third-party state arrangements that are universally hailed as exemplary. The Article presents first-of-its-kind empirical data on private prisons in Australia, discusses the implications of readily available information on juvenile facilities, and explores interstate compacts on prisoner transfers. The Article maintains that the state monopoly theory erroneously asserts that privatization is inconsistent with the modern state, and concludes with a call for policymakers and judges to imbue their future privatization decisions with local knowledge and time-honored pragmatism.
In recent decades, the criminalization of immigration and the use of private prisons have increased in popularity. The criminalization of immigration and the privatization of prisons work hand in hand in shaping the American criminal justice response to immigration. Privatization creates a powerful opportunity for the social construction of the undocumented immigrant into a powerful potential source of revenue for for-profit corporations. Private prison corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of American and The GEO Group, stand to profit significantly from the private immigration detention center. Several investigative reports have focused on how these companies stand to profit, but little attention has been given to the psychosocial consequences that impact immigrant detainees and their families.
The need to reduce the costs of incarceration to state and federal correctional agencies has allowed the movement to privatize correctional institutions to gain considerable momentum. The empirical evidence regarding whether private prisons are more costeffective than public institutions, however, is inconclusive. To address this question, a meta-analysis was conducted of 33 cost-effectiveness evaluations of private and public prisons from 24 independent studies. The results revealed that private prisons were no more cost-effective than public prisons, and that other institutional characteristics—such as the facility's economy of scale, age, and security level—were the strongest predictors of a prison's daily per diem cost.
The number of state and federal prisoners has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, but public willingness to finance prisons has not kept pace. One response has been a renewed interest in privately managed prisons. Proponents of privatization contend that private contractors, unencumbered by government procurement and personnel procedures, can provide better quality prison services at lower costs. This article uses the 1995 Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities to examine claims of improved quality. The authors find that privately managed prisons perform better on some, but not all, measures of quality of confinement. Specifically, bivariate comparisons suggest that private facilities outperform both state and federal facilities in terms of the proportion of institutions that are able to avoid inmate assaults on staff members or other inmates. Even when the authors controlled for other causal variables, private prisons remained significantly less likely than federal prisons to experience violence.
The growth of the private corrections industry has elicited interest in the comparative performance of state and private prisons. One way to measure the service quality of private prisons is to examine inmates' postrelease performance. Current empirical evidence is limited to four studies, all conducted in Florida. This analysis replicates and adds to the Florida measures in a different state and enhances previous methods. It uses data for a large cohort of Oklahoma state prison inmates released between 1997 and 2001. Controlling for known covariates, multivariate survival analysis revealed comparative rates of reincarceration for inmates in multiple exposure and comparison groups. These results are unique among prior studies on this topic; private prison inmates had a greater hazard of recidivism in all eight models tested, six of which were statistically significant. Finding no empirical support for claims of superior service from private corrections, the authors discuss policy implications and prospects for future research.
Objective: To examine the results of prison privatization. Method: In an effort to provide an empirical base from which decisions about privatization might be made, we conducted a meta-analysis of reports on head-to-head comparisons between an identifiable privately managed and publicly managed prison(s). Results: Our search identified 12 studies. Indicators of cost of confinement and confinement quality were assessed. Results suggest privately managed prisons provide no clear benefit or detriment. Conclusion: Cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal. Quality of confinement is similar across privately and publicly managed systems, with publicly managed prisons delivering slightly better skills training and having slightly fewer inmate grievances.