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COLUMN: Why are private prisons such a subject of debate? 3 questions answered

John M. Eason is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

John M. Eason is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

In Wisconsin, state law prohibits private ownership of prisons. But the use of these sorts of institutions in other states has long given rise to controversy.

Recently, questions have arisen over their use in housing undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Responding to such concerns, states have banned them, banks have vowed to stop financing them and more than one presidential candidate has pledged to end their use at the federal level.

Here are answers to three common questions about private prisons:

1. What exactly are they?

Private prisons are run or owned by corporations holding contracts with federal or state governments. They are used to house citizens who have been convicted of a crime or immigrant detainees who are being processed for deportation.

The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries in the developed world that allow private entities to own prisons. Critics of private prisons point out that profit motives, coupled with a lack of oversight, can provide incentives to skimp both on costs and care for inmates.

In 2014, roughly 8% – or 128,000 of 1.6 million U.S. prisoners – were held in private prisons. Although only 13.5% of the 1,663 prisons in the U.S. are private, more than 55% of the 206 immigrant detention centers are.

The years 2000 to 2009 saw a great increase in the number of inmates being held in private prisons. That trend has since leveled out and, generally speaking, the rate of prison building has decreased since 2000. Nearly 100 prisons have been closed nationwide.

Some populous states like Connecticut, Michigan and Mississippi have slowed their rate of imprisonment. At the same time, southern states like Texas, Florida and Georgia have seen their inmate populations level out or continuing to rise.

My recent research suggests that prisoner numbers have leveled out because we are not building new prisons. In the past, rising rates of incarceration were an outgrowth of the prison-building boom.

Some states like New York have begun closing private prisons. Even some formally “tough on crime” groups have applauded these changes as being fiscally responsible.

2. Where are they being built?

The U.S. began building private prison in 1983. From 1995 to 2000, nearly one in four of the U.S. prisons that were opened were private. Texas, Florida and Georgia together built 336 prisons, or 20% of the total.

New Mexico houses almost half of its prisoners in private prisons. Texas has the largest population of prisoners held in private institutions.

During the height of the boom, southern municipalities were three times more likely than other places to build a prison. Prisons are most often built in poor places where many of the residents are people of color.

In general, the rate of prison building has decreased since 2000. The increase in private-prison construction coincided with the closing of nearly 100 public prisons nationwide.

3. Why are private prisons the subjects of so much controversy?

Those who argue for privatization say that it delivers services at low costs. Even so, studies show that efficiency gains often come with unintended consequences.

For example, private prisons tend to be subject to less scrutiny than their public counterparts. This can open the door to abuses.  Food services, for instance, have been known to deliver food laced with maggots.

Many anti-privatization advocates believe that private operators are rife with exploitation. Almost all private prisons are operated by five companies. Corrections Corporation of America controls more than half the market, owning 53% of all private prisons.

Since private prisons have now become a topic of debate in the 2020 presidential election, the country may soon see further reform.

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