Examining Private Prisons

Activists and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have strong opinions about the privatization of the prison industrial complex. Critics of prisons for profit say that they are inhumane.

In 2016, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo requesting that the Department of Justice reduce its use of private prisons. Yates referred to a report from a government watchdog group stating that private prisons were more expensive and offered fewer positive results. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) applauded Yates’ request. The private prison system called the report “imbalanced.”  

Emory University law professor Alexander Volokh challenged the comparisons of public and private prisons. “It’s hard to do a good study that really compares them well,” Volokh said.

Another criticism stems from the profit motive of companies operating the private prisons. Some argue that gaining profit causes prisons to cut corners and fill empty beds.

Udi Ofer, Deputy National Political Director for the ACLU stated, “Profit should not play a role in the criminal justice system.”

History of PIC

The term “prison industrial complex” (PIC) comes from the “military industrial complex” popular in the 1950s. The PIC involves the rapid growth of the U.S. prison population due to the influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services for profit.

The list of companies that supply goods or take advantage of cheap prison labor is lengthy. It includes Walmart, AT&T, BP, UPS, Starbucks, Microsoft and dozens more. Additionally, companies providing rehabilitation services make big profits while the recidivism rate of inmates keeps rising.

Making profits from private prisons also leads organizations like the ACLU to claim that more inmates are being detained in order to increase revenue.

The War on Drugs

In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called for a crackdown on illegal drugs. Rockefeller demanded that any drug dealer, even a juvenile, should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or the ability to plea bargain. Prison population doubled.

When Mario Cuomo was elected Governor, he was faced with a huge problem – prison overcrowding. Cuomo, a liberal, wanted to revise the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but the voters wouldn’t allow it. Cuomo had to find a way to expand the prison system without tapping into the state’s budget.

Cuomo approached the Urban Development Corporation to receive funding. The UDC was a public state agency that could operate without receiving voter approval.  The UDC funded the prisons and leased them to the Department of Corrections. In 1991, Cuomo made a huge mistake when he sold Attica prison for $200 million. The sale spurred other states to follow suit.

Prisons for Profit

Until 1980, the number of prison inmates remained constant and in line with the population. In 1983, private prisons began to pop up and inmate population began to rise. Corrections Corporation of America, the first private prison company, was founded in 1983.

CCA now operates as CoreCivic. Their first prison was in Shelby County, Tennessee. CCA approached the state and offered to take over the state’s entire prison system for $200 million. The state agreed to the deal but had to back out when pressured by the public and the prison guard’s union.

CoreCivic’s profits have grown by 200 percent since it was founded. It remains one of the top two private prison companies alongside the GEO Group. To date, privatized prison companies earn over $7.4 billion per year.


The Sentencing Project reports that the number of inmates in U.S. private prisons has risen by 47 percent from 2000 to 2016. That is five times faster than all prisons combined.

In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported private prisons housed 7 percent of state inmates, 18 percent of federal inmates. As of December 2018, 11 percent of federal inmates were housed in private facilities.  

Kids for Cash

Many people blame law enforcement and the judicial system for the explosion of the prison population. More inmates equal more money.

In 2007, two Pennsylvania judges were convicted of the “Kids for Cash” scandal. The scandal was linked to Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, judges at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas. The judges accepted “millions of dollars” in kickbacks for imposing harsh judgments on minors to increase the population of privately-owned detention centers. From 2004-2008, the judges ruled against thousands of juveniles for mostly ridiculous offenses including bullying, making a fake MySpace page about a teacher, trespassing, and swearing at a classmate’s mother. Some kids did nothing wrong at all. At trial, Conahan was found guilty of sentencing over 2,400 children, Ciavarella had sentenced more than 3,000.

In 2010, the judges’ plea bargains were refused, and a federal jury delivered an indictment of 48 counts.

Conahan pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17.5 years on a racketeering conspiracy charge. In 2011, Ciavarella was convicted on 12 counts and sentenced to 28 years in a federal prison.

Prisons for Profit Revisited

In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the order to phase out the use of private prisons. The Obama administration had directed the Justice Department to stop using private prisons which had been called “less safe and less effective” than government-run facilities.

Sessions’ memo reads: “The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”

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