For-Profit Prisons: A Barrier to Serious Criminal Justice Reform

The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one — especially at a time when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises caused largely by bloated and unnecessary prison spending. But mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group: the private prison industry. As current incarceration levels harm the nation as a whole, for-profit prisons obtain taxpayer dollars in ever greater amounts. Private prison executives, meanwhile, bring in multi-million dollar compensation packages.

Inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard December in Chino, Calif.
Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images
Inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard December in Chino, Calif.

Today, the United States incarcerates 2.3 million individuals — more people, both per capita and in absolute terms, than any other nation in the world including Russia, China and Iran. The current incarceration rate deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, disproportionately affects people of color and has at best a minimal effect on public safety. The crippling cost of imprisoning more and more Americans — non-violent offenders in the majority of cases — saddles governments with escalating debt.

This social ill — mass incarceration — is the private prison industry’s bread and butter. Private prison companies openly admit that their profits depend on locking up more people. For example, in a 2010 annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the largest private prison company stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by ... leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices ...”

As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates. The number of inmates in private prisons increased by roughly 1600 percent between 1990 and 2009. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone took in nearly $3 billion in revenue, and their top executives each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.

While the for-profit prison industry touts the idea that governments can save money through privatization, private prisons often fail to deliver demonstrable fiscal benefits — and can even cost taxpayers more than publicly operated institutions. Numerous studies by researchers, state governments and federal agencies contradict the supposed economic benefits touted by industry supporters.

As state governments across the nation confront deep fiscal deficits, the notion that private prisons demonstrably reduce the costs of incarceration is more than untrue — it is dangerous and irresponsible. Inflated assertions about cost savings threaten to lure states into privatization, rather than reducing incarceration rates and limiting corrections spending through serious criminal justice reform.


Empirical studies also show a heightened level of violence in some private prisons. With every incentive to slash salaries so as to maximize corporate profits, private prison companies in some instances fill their facilities with inexperienced staff. After an infamous escape from an Arizona private prison in 2010, for example, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported that at the prison “[s]taff are fairly ‘green’ across all shifts,” “are not proficient with weapons” and habitually ignore sounding alarms. Private facilities have also been linked to atrocious conditions. In a private juvenile facility in Texas, for example, auditors reported, “[c]ells were filthy, smelled of feces and urine.”

Now is the time for serious criminal justice reform, not privatization schemes. The private prison industry feeds off the mass incarceration problem and cannot be part of the solution. The only real way to cut prison spending is to cut the number of people we keep in prison.

Shapiro is a Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. He litigates cases and engages in advocacy regarding prison and detention conditions, including immigration detention, access to information about prison conditions, the right of prisoners to communicate with the outside world and to practice religion, and the freedom from arbitrary body cavity searches. Prior to joining the ACLU, Shapiro worked as an associate at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, where he litigated First Amendment cases in federal trial and appellate courts, and served as a law clerk to Judge Edward R. Becker, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Shapiro is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School and studied as a Fulbright Scholar in Moscow, Russia.

Watch the premiere of "Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prison Industry" Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 9pm, 10pm, 12am and 1am ET.