Problems at Private Prisons

by Ryne Kessler, Quinnetta Younge, Amanda Samuel, and Allisha DeFreitas

The ProblemPrison

Privately owned prisons such as New York’s Auburn and Sing Sing Prisons have had a long history of mistreatment and abuse of prisoners dating back to the 1800’s. Consequently, many prisons were closed due to overcrowding, malnourishment and frequent whippings.1 Unfortunately today these problems still exist. “While there may not be frequent “whippings,” private prisons continue to provide limited services and lack proper security and inmate monitoring.”2

There have been patterns of abuse especially against juveniles and the mentally ill in prisons operated by for-profit prisons such as the GEO group and Corrections Corporations of America (CCA). The GEO Group, one of the biggest for-profit prison operators in the world, has been accused of providing abysmal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health needs.3 Corporate officials with conflicting motives run these prisons and sacrifice quality of care in their organizations in order to make a profit.

Problems arising in private prisons are due in part to lack of government oversight and limited accountability. In addition to limited accountability, for-profit prisons hope to “generate the greatest possible profit, and do this by any means necessary.”4 Lack of transparency and governmental regulation encourages corruption in organizations and allows companies to freely cut corners in order to boosts revenue.

For the past twenty years this industry has driven the mass incarceration in the U.S.5 Perverse incentives and conflicting motives lead corporate officials to force inmate occupancy in order to make a profit. The private industries themselves are the ones pushing for privatization.

Reduced security and inmate monitoring has led to increased violence in private prisons. In one example in Mississippi a group of inmates rioted while taking hostages and killing a correctional officer.6  It is important to recognize that private prisons are not the only solution to the government’s inefficiency and inability to operate state prisons. In fact, evidence has shown that private prisons are not even producing cost-savings. “Cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal.”7 So why then should we leave inmates at the mercy of corporate officials that seek huge profits?

Policy Options

 Option 1: One of the major concerns in private prisons is the safety of the inmates as well as the staff. In 2008, the Justice Department reported that there were 49% more staff assaults and 65% more prisoner assaults in private prisons compared to state prisons.8 Typical problems include serious security lapses, calling for back-up and nobody came, security violations, not enough staff, and inexperienced staff. Furthermore, there are inadequate patrols and prison movement, excessive false alarms, a lax culture, and inconsistencies with visitor screenings.9 In order to deal with these issues, proper safety measures need to be put in place.

Currently there is only one state, New Mexico, which requires the same standards in private prisons as the public prisons have, while there are private prisons in 35 states and counting. When Governor Susana Martinez took over in 2011, she changed the way private prisons were operating by demanding contractual compliance that contrasted with former Governor Bill Richardson’s lax business ways. GEO and CCA did not have to worry about fulfilling contractual obligations until Susana Martinez took office.10 New Mexico has since hit GEO and CCA with $1.4 million dollars in fines for inadequate staffing in 2011 and 2012 alone.11

The CCA is the fifth largest penal system and seeing that they were heavily fined in New Mexico, it can be argued that they may be inadequately staffing in other states. To better protect the staff and inmates in other states, similar laws to New Mexico’s policies need to be put into place to force contractual obligations. The high-profit private prison corporations can afford to pay the fines in one state, but if more states can pass legislation for this proposal, then appropriate staffing will be established and increase the overall safety of the private prison facilities.

Option 2:Private prison companies have admitted that their business model is dependent on an increase in the number of incarcerations.12 In their 2010 Annual Report filed with the SEC, CCA stated that a decrease in occupancy levels could cause a decrease in revenues and profitability.13

To ensure the continued increase in occupancy, private prison companies have been known to lobby federal and state lawmakers for harsher and longer prison sentences. In 2012, CCA wrote to 48 state governors offering to buy and operate public state prisons in exchange for a 20-year contract guaranteeing a 90 percent occupancy rate throughout the term.14

In a study conducted by ITPI, it was found that 65% of state and local private prison contracts analyzed included occupancy guarantee provisions.15 5% of the contracts analyzed guaranteed below 90% occupancy and 38% guaranteed between 90% to 94% occupancy. 16% of private prisons located in Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia guaranteed between 95% and 100% occupancy.16

States that adhere to occupancy guarantee provisions end up losing money in the long run. In 2013, the state of Colorado was forced to keep at least 3,300 prisoners in three facilities owned by CCA at an annual cost of $20,000 per inmate when CCA renegotiated their contract to include guarantee occupancy provisions.17 This meant that even though private prisons were not filled to capacity, states still incurred operational costs. To combat this inherent greed and rise in incarceration rate, occupancy guarantee provisions should be eliminated from federal, state and local contracts and public prisons should be fully utilized before inmates are sent to private prisons.

Option 3:Douglass W. Dunham argues that there must be safeguards in place which ensures that inmates are not being denied their constitutional rights, specifically the rights granted in the eighth and fourteenth amendments due process clause. Within the realm of a prison, all procedures involving inmates “require the existence of a decision making system” which is sought out to provide fair treatment.18 The liberties of inmates in private prisons are even more at stake due to the interest in capital gain per inmate.

In procedures such as disciplinary hearings, there is great concern involving the financial biases of board officials when determining the length of an inmate’s stay. During disciplinary hearings in private prisons, inmates are usually threatened to forfeit the time deducted from their sentence for good behavior as a notion of discipline. Dunham explains that “private operators are compensated based on the number of inmates they house and have a pecuniary interest in ensuring that inmates remain in custody.”19 This interest of keeping inmates in custody has the ability to cause many discrepancies including unfair decision making procedures which puts the   inmate’s right to procedural due process of the law at risk.

Private prison investors have adopted the strategy of “cherry picking” their inmates, carefully choosing inmates that don’t require costly services. Five out of eight private prisons serving Arizona refused inmates who displayed limited physical capacity, and stamina or severe physical illness or chronic conditions.

According to the Daily Newspaper article, contracts give private prisons the authority to carefully pick which inmates are being held in their prisons which in the end alters the amount spent per inmate. Research by the Arizona Department of Corrections states, “They often house only relatively healthy inmates” making them seem less expensive even though they are not.”20 The method of strategically picking prisoners based on medical obligations is an obvious example of private contractors cutting corners for profit.

Option 4:Building more prisons whether it is public or private is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime program at the University of Alabama (TASC) proposes long-term solutions such as, prevention programming for at risk youth, intervention, alternative sentencing, treatment instead of incarceration, secondary and higher education and job training behind bars, effective re-entry programming, and other justice reinvestment programs that are geared towards restoration of our communities.21

The Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) recently requested $27 million to lease private prison beds outside of the state of Alabama. However if the state used the $27 million to begin reforming people who were sent to prison for simple drug possession and addiction in the first place, the need for private prisons might not be as great. “There are prisoners in need of drug treatment services that currently are not being provided.”22

In addition, addressing the “war on drugs” is critical in helping to reduce the need for private prisons. “On Dec. 31, 2012, there were 196,574 sentenced prisoners under federal jurisdiction. Of these, 99,426 were serving time for drug offenses and 11,688 for violent offenses.”23 The imprisonment approach to drug policy is counterproductive, costly and ineffective.

There is a need to eliminate or change policies that cause mass incarnation such as the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing laws and the Three Strikes Law-which significantly increases the prison sentencing of a person convicted of a felony who was previously convicted of two or more violent crimes or serious felonies.

Further, many states have successfully reduced prison populations by investing in initiatives such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). This program model developed by The Bureau of Justice Assistance and Pew Charitable Trusts is designed “to identify and implement data-driven criminal justice reforms that will reduce state prison populations and save money.”24

 Private Prison Notes and Works Cited

 Full Private Prison Memorandum

10 thoughts on “Problems at Private Prisons

  1. Dioris Valerio

    This was a great brief. It thoroughly explained the issues that are going in privately owned prisons. This research was extremely enlightening and well presented. The problem was thought out and the policy options provide solutions for this detrimental issue to society. The criminal justice system has been broken for a long time. I do believe your option 4 Reinvestment Initiative is a great start to improving this serious issue.


    I found this to be a very well researched write up. I found some of the statistics cited to be quite remarkable (not in a good way) and the sources to be well established and important when discussing such a heavy and consequential topic. I like that before the policy options are introduced the writers leave the reader with a question, thus establishing how the current method is not working.

  3. Pamelina

    How do you complain to your state of a private prison without inmates being threatened by the director and assistant director of that private facility in Massachusetts

  4. Sandra Harvey

    We need a better out come from Organizations who have no business making money off prisoner backs . It doesn’t take a genius to know what is right. There should be a law against treatment like this. No profit is worth this kind of treatment to people. If you want to make money do it humane .

  5. Kevin Gonzalez

    It seems very apparent that private prisons have operated under an egregious show of greed. The main issue with private prisons is, indeed, its lobbying power in local, state, and federal levels of governance. Eliminating “occupancy guarantee provisions” and addressing the war on drugs are two policy solution that I think would be the most effective. Public opinion is already swaying towards freeing non violent drug offenders. Meanwhile, the occupancy guarantee provisions, if framed correctly, can convince the public how dangerous it is to have as policy. It incentivizes more policies (like war on drugs) that more force people into prisons.

  6. Hina Khalid

    Reading about the problems at private prisons are shocking. I am unsure why private and for-profit prisons are a thing in the united States. Making a facility for profit is quite clear that it will lead to unethical behavior within the organization. The first policy option presented is the strongest. I am glad Governor Susana Martinez took action against the prisons in Texas. Prisoners are human, sure they made a mistake in their lives, but they still 100% deserve to be treated ethically. If this issue is not resolved now, it will only get worse as the years go by. Apart from prisoners, it was also alarming to hear about the staff. Staff members should be able to go into work and not worry about their lives being at risk. “In one example in Mississippi a group of inmates rioted while taking hostages and killing a correctional officer.”

  7. Christina Wang

    It is alarming to learn that there are occupancy guarantee clauses on such contracts. This indicates that the government is not very invested in learning crime rates and believe that it is worth agreeing to a 90% occupancy rate for prisons. I agree that money is wasted on the war on drugs. Prisons are overrun and not much is being done to change this. The numbers you have provided showing the number of people in prison for drug charges vs. violent crimes is simply ludicrous. I believe that private run prisons are not necessarily a bad thing but it must be held accountable the way public prisons are expected to be accountable. The occupancy clause should be stricken from their contracts and I agree with with the first policy option as well.

  8. Matthew Adeniji

    I believe that private prisons have contributed to the lack of safety and security for both inmates as well as security. Even as these issues become prevalent across the country, the privatization of prisons have continued to grow over the years, with low-cost efficient training for new employees and the inhumane conditions some of these inmates in some cases are detained immigrants waiting to be deported have been subjected to – it goes to show that the organizations that run these facilities are more concerned about making profit rather than their well-being. As someone that works in the Criminal Justice System, its imperative that the conditions should be accommodating no matter how little to help the inmates adjust to their new surroundings.


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