The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocacy group, recently released a short study on privately-owned prisons in the U.S. One of the most striking facts documented by the study, Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons, was that in the first sixteen years of this century, the number of inmates held by private prison companies has grown by 47%, while the overall prison population has climbed by just 9%.
Drawing on the Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics, the study shows that in 2000, only 87,369 inmates were held in private prisons, but by 2016 that number had climbed to 128,063. In comparison, the total inmate population in federal and state public during the same period only rose from about 1.38 million to slightly over 1.5 million.
The study also reveals that while both federal and some state correctional systems use private prisons, federal use has been increasing at a significantly faster pace (120%) during the same period that has the increase in overall use in the 27 states which employ private prisons, rising from 71,845 to 94,164 (a 31% hike).
Federal inmates in private facilities now make up an 8.5% share of the total federal and state inmate population, making the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) the single largest customer of private prisons. Not all of them are in prisons, however; about 37% of federal prisoners covered by contracts with private firms are in halfway houses or under monitored home custody (two growth areas already targeted by some private prison firms). Private facilities also hold immigration detainees for the Department of Homeland Security, but those persons are not included in the BOP numbers.
Late during President Obama’s second term, DOJ announced it planned to phase out the use of private prisons over a five-year period. But soon after the Trump administration arrived, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy and committed the agency to continue using private prisons.
On the state side, private prisons have been housing inmates since 1985, when Texas became the first state to contract with a private prison. Today, 27 states have private prison contracts, while 23 don’t; District of Columbia inmates are regarded as remaining in federal custody.
The degree to which states use private prisons varies widely. Ten states place at least a quarter of their inmates with private prisons. The highest percentages are in New Mexico (43%) and Montana (38%); Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Hawaii have rates in the mid-20’s; and Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Vermont, and New Jersey round out the top 10, with rates ranging from 19.6% to 13.7%. During the 16 years covered by the study, eight states dropped private prison use, and five adopted it.
No fan of private prisons, the Sentencing Project offered some recommendations in its new study, calling for states and the federal government to terminate those contracts, require greater disclosure of private prison records, and to stop sending inmates to prisons far from their homes.
The report also disputed claims that private prisons provide comparable levels of service at lower prices than do public prisons, pointing to other studies which contradict those claims or find them unproven. It concludes with brief profiles of five states’ experience with private prisons.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.