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Population in Private Prisons Grew Five Times Faster than Total Prison Population, 2000-2016

  • 1 of every 12 people in U.S. prisons incarcerated in a private prison in 2016
  • 73% of people in immigration detention confined in private facilities in 2017

WASHINGTON, DC – Despite substantial research that challenges the purported cost-saving benefits of private prisons, and the bipartisan consensus on the need to address mass incarceration, from 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in private prisons increased 47 percent, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 9 percent, according to a new report from The Sentencing Project.

“As criminal justice reform policies gain prominence nationwide, reconciling the harmful consequences of for-profit influences in mass incarceration is critical,” said Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives. “In states like New Mexico and Florida where private prison investments are strong, the history of the industry is checkered by allegations of corruption, abuse and political influence.”

Twenty-seven states and the federal government relied on private prisons to incarcerate 128,063 people as of 2016, reports Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons. New Mexico had the highest proportion (43 percent) of its population held privately, followed closely by Montana with 39 percent in 2016.

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on private prisons increased dramatically (120 percent) since 2000 from 15,524 to 34,159. While a recent reduction in the federal prison population helped precipitate a phasing out of private contracts during the Obama administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly reversed the plan in early 2017. In subsequent months he has sought to expand the number of private prison beds in expectation of renewed growth in the federal prison population.

Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, the proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent since 2002. On average 26,249 people were confined in private immigration detention on any given day in 2017.

Private prison companies claim they can reduce costs while also offering services necessary for maintaining safety in prisons and generating a profit for shareholders. As a result, companies pay employees less, skimp on staff trainings and thereby jeopardize conditions in facilities.

The report concludes with policy recommendations, including ending for-profit prison privatization, barring transfers to private facilities far from home and removing mandated bed-quotes for immigration detention which incentive private contracts.

The report, authored by Gotsch and Vinay Basti, also includes in-depth case studies of prison privatization in Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Texas. The profiles offer historical context about state criminal justice policies, and document the political culture, perspectives and circumstances that influenced the rise or fall of private prisons in each jurisdiction.



The Sentencing Project
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The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.