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For-Profit Prisons vs. State/Federal Owned Prisons

Posted in Riverside Jails Information on September 17, 2018

The United States accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population despite only holding 5% of the total global population. These high numbers mean that there is a high demand for prison space – one that government-run prisons cannot accommodate. As a solution to this problem, private prisons started to gain popularity. And in recent years, the population of inmates in these for-profit prisons has increased – in some states more than doubling since 2000.

State and Federal Owned Prisons vs Private For-Profit Prisons

State and federal owned prisons accounted for the majority of prisons in the US until the 1980s. These government-run facilities have state and federal resources behind them. In contrast, for-profit prisons started to crop up in the 1980s as a response to the hike in prison populations brought on by the war on drugs.

Such for-profit prisons continue to exist in the United States today, accounting for roughly 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal ones, and almost half of the federally detained immigrants. With the increasing level of inmates in the United States, it’s likely that the private prison population will continue to increase as well.

In fact, for-profit prisons receive more income the more prisoners they hold. This presents a moral conflict, as these prisons receive a reward for detaining more people for longer periods of time. While prison is a form of punishment for crimes, jail time should instead provide opportunities for inmates to rehabilitate themselves.

However, if a private prison were to focus on these programs, they would be cutting back on their potential profits. There is little motivation for private prisons to rehabilitate their inmates, rather than continue to detain them. And yet, rehabilitation is essential for decreasing repeat crimes, which can improve the overall state of the country.

When comparing the two, a private prison has far fewer regulations on behavior and transparency in its practices; for example, a private prison does not need to disclose how many prisoners it keeps in solitary confinement. Across studies, state and federally owned prisons have higher levels of correctional services, programs, resources, security, and safety for inmates. Some private prisons cut back on costs that help the health of prisoners as a way to save funds.

Many proponents of private prisons claim that these for-profit institutions help governments save money. However, many other studies suggest the opposite, that siphoning money from for-profit prisons can cost federal and state governments more money than government-run prisons. Overall, the evidence is more inconclusive than anything else, but there’s no doubt that private prisons present issues.

The Bureau of Prisons and the US Department of Justice have both declared their intentions to reduce reliance on private prisons across the state and federal levels. Such efforts are geared toward improving the available resources and conditions that inmates face while incarcerated, which can have a positive effect on prisoners who want to better themselves during their sentences.

The US criminal justice system has many other issues when it comes to law enforcement practices, fair sentences, and other aspects of the law. While correcting prison systems may only be one piece of the overall picture, it’s still an important one that deserves attention. Moving away from reliance on private prisons and onto more supported state and federally owned facilities holds an important place in criminal justice reform.

With policy changes by the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons, there may be a return to the decline of the private prison populations that we saw throughout 2012-2015. While on the other end, increased sentence lengths for immigration and drug charges may contribute to the growth of for-profit prisons. Only in-depth reform can reverse this trend.