Prior to the 1980s, private prisons didn’t exist in the United States. But thanks to the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, which led to harsher sentencing policies and higher rates of incarceration, the inmate population skyrocketed beyond the capacity of the nation’s existing prisons, a fact that corporations were quick to take advantage of. In 1984, the country’s first for-profit prison was established in Tennessee, and over the next six years, it was joined by 66 more. In August 2016, the Justice Department announced their plans to end the use of private prisons, citing concerns about their levels of safety and effectiveness at saving money compared to government-run facilities. Less than a year later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed this plan. Although private prisons account for a small overall percentage of America’s incarcerated population, they have grown at a disproportionate rate, with an astounding 1600 percent increase in their populations from 1990 to 2005.

The corporations running private prisons inevitably claim that they are saving the government money, but their true focus is on protecting their own bottom lines. In order to lower operating costs, these facilities cut corners, hiring fewer employees and paying and training them less. Private prison employees earn an average of over $5,000 less than their government-employed counterparts and receive 58 fewer hours of training. This leads to higher employee turnover and decreased security in the prisons. A 2016 report from the Justice Department found that private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults, as well as twice as many illicit weapons than comparable federal facilities. The report also found that the Bureau of Prison’s monitors tasked with making sure private prisons comply with federal policy regularly failed to ensure inmates were receiving medical care. One prison went without a full-time doctor for months, a fact that the prison’s monitor failed to report. The lack of adequate security and healthcare unnecessarily endangers the lives of inmates, who are not in a position to do anything about it because they are in prison.

Despite all these cost-cutting measures, it’s unclear whether private prisons actually save the government any money. In-depth research from Arizona found that inmates in the state’s for-profit prisons rarely cost less than those in state-run prisons, and in some cases cost as much as $1,600 more per year. The research also showed that private prisons can push down their costs by refusing to accept prisoners with severe illnesses or a history of violence (an option not afforded to state-run institutions). This helps the facility spend less on medical care and security, while these high-cost inmates are forced into state prisons and paid for by taxpayers. A report released by the ACLU revealed similar findings in Hawaii, New Jersey, and Florida.

Any money saved by corporate-run prisons only benefits the corporations themselves, and these corporations are willing to go to extreme and horrifying lengths to preserve these profits. One particularly notorious example of this is the 2009 “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which two judges in Pennsylvania were revealed to have been accepting money from the owner of two private juvenile detention centers in return for sentencing juvenile offenders to time in those centers. Children were sentenced to time in detention centers for offenses like shoplifting DVDs or failing to appear at hearings they were never notified of.

The Pennsylvania judges were met with widespread outrage, and rightly so, but the corporations that run prisons continue to protect their profit margins in less illegal and more insidious ways. These corporations stand to make more money when more people are sentenced to prison, so they work hard to influence policy and push for harsher sentencing laws. A report from the Justice Policy Institute details how prison corporations use lobbyists, campaign contributions, and relationships with policymakers to further their own political agenda. For instance, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the US, has spent $17.4 million on lobbying expenditures in the last 10 years and $1.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012. In 2013, the CCA and another major prison company, the GEO Group, also funded lobbying efforts to stop immigration reform, killing the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in order to keep undocumented immigrants flowing into their facilities, as well as securing increased congressional funding to incarcerate those same people in for-profit prisons.

The existence and expansion of private prisons are by no means the only things wrong with our criminal justice system, a system marked by racism, corruption, and inhumane treatment. Yet there is something particularly alarming about the idea of a company working to put more people in prison for the express purpose profiting off them.

Joy is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at


  • Man with Axe

    All the problems of private prisons are examples of government failure.

    The government, as the sole customer of the private prison, as well as its regulator, should be monitoring and managing what goes on in these prison, just as it does for other regulated industries in which the government pays but the services are provided by private entities: various social work services, insurance companies, defense contractors, etc.

    If government runs the prisons there is no one to correct for whatever inefficiencies and corruption takes place. But if a private company runs the prison and the government regulates the company carefully, abuses should be mostly eliminated.

    There is no reason the abuses you discuss should get past the government regulator.