8 Things You Need to Know About America's Private Prison Industry

This story first appeared on WhoWhatWhy.com.


Crime is going down in America, but more Americans than ever are in prison—and more and more money is being spent and made, turning this country into a giant armed camp. Here are some key points about the private prison industry:

1. America’s system of detaining and monitoring “criminals” impacts more people than ever before. Including those who are either in some form of incarceration or in the parole and probation process, you’re looking at an affected population of….six million. One out of every 100 Americans is behind bars now. And every year, about 13 million Americans spend some time in jail for at least a brief spell.

2. State legislators faced with dwindling revenues are eager to offload inmates to “cheap” private facilities

3. The private prison industry grew 350 percent over the past fifteen years.

4. Two private companies – Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group– dominate the private prison industry. The biggest company, Corrections Corporation of America, is offering to buy prisons from states as long as they can promise an adequate supply of prisoners to make the deal worthwhile.

5. Studies show that private facilities perform badly compared to public ones on almost every metric—prevention of intra-prison violence, jail conditions, rehabilitation efforts—except reducing state budgets and adding to the corporate bottom line.

To keep their gravy train rolling, private prison companies need a few things from state and local government:

6) Lots of people arrested and convicted (often of essentially victimless crimes) and given long sentences. This most heavily impacts young black males—about one in nine of whom is in prison, many for using or selling marijuana, or, to a lesser degree, harder drugs. (Although whites have comparable drug use rates, their prosecution rates are dramatically lower.)

7) Opposition to the decriminalization of drug use, which would cut sharply into prison industry profits. (As a result, it ain’t going to happen.)

8) The continued criminalization and detention of undocumented foreigners.

With serious crime rates dropping, the US has fewer and fewer of the hardest-core (mostly male) criminals who were once prime targets for incarceration. To replace them, the private prison industry needs more young people, more women and (thanks to the immigration snatch game) more children as fodder for detention facilities.

The privatization of prisons is yet another instance of how small-government advocates are driving more and more of our lives into the hands of companies whose only objective is to turn a profit – without concern for larger social consequences. When public services like incarceration are handled as cheaply as possible, terrifying outcomes can result, including, in this case, unnecessary harm to minor offenders, the hardening of minor offenders into serious criminals, and calls for still more draconian law enforcement and punishment protocols, whose main justification is to keep those for-profit prisons filled.

How bad can it get? A private detention company in Pennsylvania bribed two judges to order youths imprisoned. 

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