Public vs. Private Prisons: Why is Everyone Talking?

EKU Online > Public vs. Private Prisons: Why is Everyone Talking?

There are currently 1,506,800 people incarcerated in the United States according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Our nation has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Where do we house all of these people? In the U.S., these 1.5 million people are being held in either public prisons or private prisons. You might be asking yourself, what exactly are the differences between public and private prisons, and why should we care? Let’s break it down.

What is a public prison?

Let’s start with public prisons, since this is where 92 percent of inmates are housed. Public prisons are non-profit prisons owned and operated by the state and federal governments. In public prisons the government oversees the prison operations and all decisions made. The government decides where someone is housed, what type of programming is provided, who receives early dismissal, and the list goes on. The government’s power, though, is limited in the fact that they cannot deny inmates like private prisons can. Public prisons are also funded by tax payers. This tax payer funding requires transparency from the government who must make certain information public, such as the allocation of funds. The public serves as an additional check on the power of the public correctional facilities and holds public prisons accountable.

What is a private prison?

A private prison is owned and operated by a third party that is contracted by the government. Originally created in the mid 1800s, private prisons didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s when prisons became overcrowded as a result of the War on Drugs. Private prisons were viewed as a cheaper alternative to public prisons, which are very costly to run and operate.

How do they function? These prisons, mainly located in the South and the West, are funded by the government. The government pays a daily rate per prisoner housed. Revenue is also generated from having inmates create goods to be sold to the public. Unlike with public prisons, the private prisons can decide what inmates they will accept and decline. In order to keep costs down, they often deny inmates who are perceived to be costly, such as those with physical or mental health issues. Being privately owned also allows the prisons to keep information and records private, which limits transparency and accountability for this system.

Why are people talking about it?

The question on the table is whether or not private prisons are being ethically utilized.  Much of the opposition to privatization rests on the belief that the profit motive entices companies to cut corners in ways that undermine their capacity for providing safe and secure facilities.  Early studies revealing lower staff to inmate ratios, less qualified and skilled staff, and less rehabilitative programming within private prisons affirmed these concerns.  More recent studies comparing the quality of confinement in private and public prisons, however, have reported few significant differences, leading researchers to conclude that privatization is neither beneficial nor detrimental. 

Another point of view is that they actually incentivize imprisoning people. If you are reading and are still unsure about what everyone’s hang up is, let’s refer back to the funding of private prisons. The government funds private prisons based on the total number of inmates and the length of their sentences. This creates a financial incentive to keep more people imprisoned and for longer periods of time. Imprisoning thousands has become a profit-making endeavor. One of the most famous cases of private prison corruption was the 2009 “Kids for Cash” scandal. It involved judges in Pennsylvania accepting money from a private prison owner in exchange for sentencing kids to this prison at twice the state average cost in order to pad the prison owner’s pockets. The Obama Administration worked to eliminate private prisons, however, in 2017 the Trump Administration changed course to house more drug offenders, as well as detained immigrants.

Public vs. private prisons will continue to be a debate. Does the current arrangement promote imprisonment and longer sentences, or are private prisons truly just a cheaper alternative to public prisons? Either way, with the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world it is time to take a closer look into how, where, and why we incarcerate people.

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