Private Prisons are Expensive, Dangerous and Bad Public Policy. We Should Abolish Them.

A recent undercover investigation by online news site Mother Jones uncovered horrific conditions at a private prison facility located in Winnfield, Louisiana. Over the course of four months, journalist Shane Bauer posed as a correctional officer at the Winn Correctional Facility and saw firsthand how an overcrowded and understaffed correctional facility coped with stabbings, mental illness, and constant stress.

It’s an amazingly extensive piece of reporting. Bauer was able to record audio and video footage inside the prison and filed nightly video reports sharing his thoughts and feelings from the day. Between his written article, a podcast episode and a video series pulled together by Mother Jones (see below) you get a wide glimpse into the world of private prisons and their deadly shortcomings.

Bauer’s investigation is simply another confirmation of what criminal justice reform advocates have been saying for some time. The benefits private prisons often claim when vying for state contracts are near non-existent:

  • Private prisons aren’t saving states money: Research by the Government Accountability Office and other research organizations repeatedly show that private prisons operate at similar levels of cost-efficiency as do state-run facilities. Not only that, but in many studies where private prisons appear to be saving costs, major issues in methodology leave the results to be suspect. As a report by the Sentencing Project concluded, savings claimed by for-profit prisons are “mostly illusory.”
  • Private prisons are dangerous to inmates: Due to low-wages for correctional officers and other cost-cutting measures such as reduced inmate programming and support services, private prisons end up being very dangerous places. They can be dramatically understaffed, meaning that fewer (often less experienced) officers are responsible for large numbers of inmates. With less supervision and fewer constructive outlets for stress, inmates clash, leading to greater numbers of assaults and stabbings relative to state-run facilities. In one example conditions had gotten so bad at a private youth prison in Mississippi that in November of 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center jointly filed suit against GEO, a private prison company, claiming that conditions in the facility violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Private prisons produce terrible results: A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that private prisons are likely to hold inmates for significantly longer periods and after release individuals who had spent time in a private prison are more likely to commit another crime. This shouldn’t be too much of a shock, many private prisons are paid on a per-person, per-day basis, meaning the longer an inmate stays in the facility the more the private corporation gets paid. And because private prisons look to save costs by not offering educational and rehabilitative services, the higher recidivism rates are unsurprising as well.


Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Number of prisoners held in private prisons under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities, December 31, 1999-2014”. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool at

Private prisons may be great business, but they are terrible public policy. The United States must reject their increased use expansion of private prisons, but rather reducing their role in incarceration. Roughly 130,000 individuals are currently housed in private prisons – roughly 8 percent of the total prison population – that’s a 90 percent increase in the private prison population since 1999.

States would be much better off focusing efforts on reducing prison populations overall and putting more money into housing, childcare, education, employment and training, healthcare and drug abuse treatment to help alleviate the underlying stresses that contribute to poverty and crime.

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