A new study released last month from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that “advocates for effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice,” takes an important look at trends in incarceration in privatized prisons, including a breakdown by state. It points out that the number of people housed in private prisons has increased five percent since 2000; in 2022, eight percent of individuals serving a prison sentence in a state or federal prison were serving it in a private prison facility.

In the Public Interest has had a keen interest in prison privatization as part of our criminal justice work. We asked the report’s author, Kristen M. Budd, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a few questions about the report.

Can you talk about why you chose to explore the use of privatized prisons vs. public prisons? Are there meaningful differences that you are curious about?

The privatization of prisons is a hidden or lesser-known component of the American corrections landscape. Many people do not know, or are not aware, that states, and historically the federal government, contract with private prisons. These are for-profit industries. Our Private Prison fact sheet is one way The Sentencing Project hopes to increase public awareness about these companies who make money—millions of dollars in profits—to incarcerate our community members. Each year, we publicly disseminate our analysis of private prison use not only so that the public is informed—it’s their tax dollars that are paying for these companies to run private facilities—but also so that we can analyze how the private prison industry contracts or expands. Ultimately, private prisons are another mechanism that feed and exacerbate mass incarceration in our country. There should be no profiting from mass incarceration.

Do you have any ideas or theories about why certain states—like Montana—rely more on privatized prisons? Or about why some use them little or not at all?

While our data helps us see the scope of private prison use across the country, it does not tell us why one state is more reliant on the private prison industry versus another. With that said, private prisons could be used for various reasons by specific states. For instance, if a state contracts with a private prison, the state would offset or not incur the cost of building a state-run prison. Private companies also claim there are cost savings to the state due to their efficiency. But, based on studies done on this claim, cost savings tend to be elusive, they are not guaranteed, and some states have been shown to spend more money on private prisons versus a public state-run facility. Reducing costs for profit is also problematic—think less rehabilitative programming, decreased labor costs (e.g., low staff benefits/pay) which can lead to high staff turnover. Ultimately, these all matter in terms of facility safety and even living conditions in facilities (e.g., unsanitary conditions). In regard to some states using them on a smaller scale or not at all, states do contract with private facilities out-of-state. So, while there may be few to no private prisons active in a state, that state may be using the private prison system in other ways, such as sending an incarcerated community member out of state to a private facility to serve their sentence, which won’t be reflected in the data we have available.

What trends have we seen in the number of people housed in privatized prisons?

Since 2012, we have seen the number of our community members serving their sentence in a private facility decrease. There could be a number of reasons for this. Generally speaking, the U.S. prison population has declined 25% since reaching its peak in 2009. We know under certain administrations there has been movement to phase out and end federal government contracts with private prison facilities. For example, while more recent, the Biden administration issued an executive order to phase out the Bureau of Prison’s use of private facilities. States themselves may also decide not to renew private prison contracts.

Anything surprising in your findings?

At the federal level with the Bureau of Prisons, it was a welcome surprise to see the decrease in the number of people serving their sentence in a private facility over this 20-plus year time span. Historically, they’ve been the largest prison system relying on privatization. With that said, decarceration in private facilities should be happening at a much quicker rate, particularly given the health and safety concerns and that incarcerating people should not be for profit. We hope to see this continuation of eliminating contracts with for-profit prison companies not only at the federal-level but also at the state-level.


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