Why Abolish Private Prisons?

The better question is why were they allowed to exist in the first place.

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. Our country has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. What’s worse is that we support the incarceration and detention of people for profit. For-profit private prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry in this country.


An industry that’s sole purpose is to incarcerate more people so that owners and shareholders can profit more and more. There are many reasons why the private for profit industry is growing.


Frequently asked questions

What are Private Prisons?

Private prisons are prisons that are operated by for-profit corporations instead of governmental authorities. Government pays private vendors to perform the functions of incarceration and punishment.

Private prisons are businesses. Their highest priority is profit and they thrive on mass incarceration. The stock values of publicly traded private prison corporations increase in value as they project higher profitability in the operation of their facilities, which comes from incarcerating more people.

Private prisons operate under contract with federal, state and local government agencies and they are paid with tax dollars. Private prison corporations contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the US Marshal Service, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Department of Homeland Security, approximately 30 states, and numerous counties, cities and towns to provide private prison, jail and detention services.

What’s the problem of using private prisons?

The first loyalty of corporate management is to profitability. In a prison model, more profits come from putting more people in private prisons and from mass incarceration generally. The for-profit prison industry will fight to maintain its profits and to increase the number of people incarcerated privately, and it has an influential political presence.

Just like a hotel loses money if they have empty beds, for-profit prisons are motivated to keep their beds filled. A basic premise of for-profit organizations is that they succeed by either increasing revenue or reducing cost – optimally, both.

To increase profits from prisons, the prison corporations are driven to increase the number of prisoners they incarcerate and to cut costs. Cutting costs may cause limiting services like –

  • Healthcare - limiting basic medical, mental health and substance abuse care
  • Education - critical for prisoners to transition to the community
  • Space – which, in today’s environment, can be lifesaving, versus overcrowding.
  • Personnel - both the quality and quantity of prison staff with appropriate training.
  • and other critical services, like job skills, and other life skills.

Private for-profit prisons are a formidable obstacle to criminal justice reform.

What are the major private prison corporations?

CoreCivic, Inc., The GEO Group, and Management & Training Corporation are the three largest prison corporations. Combined, they incarcerate 90% of all prisoners in private for-profit prisons, and they detain many immigrants.

CoreCivic and GEO Group are publicly-traded. Their stock values fluctuate based on projections of the number of people they will incarcerate.

Who supports the abolition of private prisons?

Our website includes a number of resolutions adopted by various groups that call for abolition. Incarcerating people for profit has drawn broad-based opposition, from faith-based organizations to libertarian groups, and from civil rights associations to corrections officer unions. Many of these groups formally adopted resolutions urging governments to end the practice of private incarceration, while others have operated behind the scenes to limit the growth of the industry. These organizations represent very different worldviews, but they all see the inherent wrongness of injecting the profit motive into a criminal justice system thereby making the criminal justice system unfair, unsafe, and not aligned with the principles of a well-functioning democracy.

How many people are in private prisons?

Approximately 10-13% of prisoners are in private facilities today. It is difficult to put a precise number on that because things change quickly -- in most cases, the agency responsible for incarceration has broad authority to move people from public to private facilities.

The numbers can change dramatically too if, for example, a state legislature considers privatization of corrections generally, as has occurred. Arizona incarcerates 20% of its prisoners in private prisons. New Mexico and Montana are close to 40%.

Why focus on a problem that most directly impacts only 1 in 10 people in prisons?

We regard the profit incentive to incarcerate as a cancer in our criminal justice system that is spreading not just in prison privatization but also to for-profit probation, parole, community corrections and other services that take away or restrict freedom. As stated above, the numbers can change quickly too. It is critical to make this challenge before the private prison industry becomes “too big to fail”.

Privatization greatly lessens public oversight and accountability for a quintessential government function. There are many reports of private prison failures regarding safety, security and violence, and not saving taxpayers any expense.

Consider the likely priorities at annual shareholder meetings of prison corporations -- the highest considerations will be about profits, namely how can they increase their share of the corrections “pie” and how to increase the size of that pie.

How does abolition of private prisons fit in with the larger criminal justice reform movement?

Criminal Justice Reform is a movement aimed at making fundamental changes in the criminal justice system, to at least return our nation to more normal times before we became the world’s largest jailer. Goals of the movement for criminal justice reform include:

  • decriminalization,
  • decreasing the United States' prison population,
  • reducing prison sentences that are perceived to be too harsh and long,
  • altering drug sentencing policy and treating substance abuse as a public health issue
  • decreasing rescidivism,
  • policing reform,
  • reducing overcriminalization, and
  • juvenile justice reform.

The profit incentives in prison privatization are in conflict with these goals. Private prisons do not conform at all with Criminal Justice Reform. Each of these initiatives will negatively impact prisons corporations because they reduce the prison population. Conversely, private jailers are incentivized to keep prisoners longer and to see prisoners return to prison, following release. They have great opportunity to influence early release credits and eligibility for parole through handling of incident reports and regulation of daily interactions "within the walls."

I don’t know anyone in prison. Why should I care?

On any given day more than 7 million Americans are imprisoned, in jail, on probation, on parole or some other form of community supervision. These numbers are staggering. We incarcerate more people than China and Russia. Our incarceration rate is many times the rates of other western countries. This is about what kind of country we are and that our younger generations will inherit. In the unlikely circumstance that you do not know anyone whose life has been touched by the criminal justice system, give it more time and you will know someone whose family is affected.

This is about fairness and the integrity of the system. Our country has a long and dark history of taking many people’s freedom away to make profits for the few, and parts of our criminal justice system have been complicit in making that history including, for example, the Dred Scott decision, the Black Codes, convict leasing and Jim Crow laws that survived long after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery.

Just as our police should not be paid more for issuing citations or making arrests, jailers should not have financial incentives to keep prisoners longer and to lobby for getting more prisoners. For example, private prisons write incident reports that can affect prisoners’ release dates.

How we treat prisoners says much about us as a people, as a community. It reflects our values and principles, our attitudes about humankind, and our pursuit of a more evolved society. We care because we believe every human deserves dignity – regardless of their circumstances.

We also believe people care about the constitutionality of this practice.

Why Abolish Private Prisons?

First, we believe that under the Constitution incarceration and punishment are solely the responsibility of government and that government may not delegate those functions. Prisoners in private prisons do not receive the same protection of law and law enforcement as do people confined in private prisons.

Second, there is a conflict of interest between the duty of the prison systems and the objectives of prison corporation. The mission of the American prison system is to ensure that offenders serve their sentences of imprisonment in facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and provide reentry programming to ensure their successful return to the community. There is also a conflict between the prison corporation’s interest in profits and individual liberty.

Third, in a privatized for-profit system, individuals become human inventory whose very presence in private prison cells generates corporate revenue and profits, and corporate executive compensation. Prison corporations receive payments for every day a person occupies a private prison cell. Tranches of prisoners are “auctioned” by the state to prison corporations through public procurement. Stock values of prison corporations go up when they project incarcerating more and more prisoners in for-profit prison cells. We believe this commodification of prisoners violates the 13th Amendment prohibition of slavery and the 8th Amendment’s protection of human dignity.

What do you expect to achieve with the lawsuit?

We filed our first lawsuit to seek lasting change under the Constitution of the United States. (Brown vs. Board of Education and Obergefell vs. Hodges are useful models.) In the action the plaintiffs are challenging Arizona state laws that authorize prison privatization and the state agency practice of contracting with private for-profit prison vendors. We seek a declaratory judgment that prison privatization is unconstitutional and an injunction to ban the practice.

We intend to get the issue of prison privatization before the Supreme Court of the United States, which has not addressed the issue before. We may pursue other lawsuits against federal agencies and in other federal circuits to pursue this goal. We want the Supreme Court to ban prison privatization throughout the land.


The government breached its social contract with the people of the United States by selling the incarceration of people to the lowest bidder. “We the People” of the United States surrendered power and individual liberty to form a government that would in tum provide order and protection of individual liberties. Thus, an individual’s life, liberty or property may not be taken without “due process of law”. The private prison vendor is not the law. The taking of liberty is an inherent governmental function that may not be delegated to profit-making ventures.


Once having delegated the function to prison corporations, the government has injected serious financial bias into the criminal justice system. These corporations have no incentive to rehabilitate or release prisoners. They have financial incentives to keep prisoners longer and they spend lots of money on Congress and state legislators to put more people in prison and for longer sentences. As jailers they are responsible for reports that affect liberty and early release time.


Crime and punishment should be viewed by government officials as societal burdens that cry out for public solutions. The private prison profits from societal decay and commands contracts that guaranty 90% occupancy and taxpayer payment for empty beds. Worse, the prison corporation is not transparent. The people who run them are not accountable to the voters.


The incentives are all wrong.


The inmate himself or herself becomes a commodity, a de-humanized source of profit for the corporations. What does that look like? It is a new form of the plantation, of slavery. More is taken from the inmate than liberty itself. The inmate’s very presence, very humanity, is reduced to a dollar value to the corporation that imprisons him.

The Serious Problems of Private Prisons

Academic Perspectives


Privatization of Corrections: A Violation of U.S. Domestic Law, International Human Rights, and Good Sense, Human Rights Brief (2006)


Privatization of Corrections: Defining the Issues, Vanderbilt Law Review (1987)

Justice Policy Institute - Gaming the System
ACLU - Banking on Bondage
Grassroots Leadership - The Dirty Thirty
The Sentencing Project - Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Detention
The Sentencing Project - The Color of Justice
American Friends Service Committee - Treatment Industrial Complex
American Friends Service Committee - Private Prisons: The Public's Problem

Research Into Privatization

Immigration Detention

The United States has the largest immigrant detention infrastructure in the world with over 400,000 individuals passing through detention each year. The expansion of the system is in part due to an arbitrary quota from Congress that requires the incarceration of 34,000 immigrants in detention at any given time. This policy, known as the detention bed quota is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system. “. . . at a current cost of over $2 billion each year, immigration detention quotas are a way for the private prison industry to protect their bottom line.” (from Detention Watch Network) See Public Law 114-4, Section 544, 114th Congress.


Comprehensive immigration numbers compiled by Detention Watch (2009) are staggering; ICE had an adult average daily population (ADP) of 32, 606 in a total of 178 facilities. Of these, 15,942 detainees—or 49%—were housed in thirty privately-operated detention centers. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest private contractor of ICE detention beds. The company operates a total of 14 ICE-contract facilities with a total of 14,556 beds. In 2009, CCA averaged a daily population of 6,199 detained immigrants. Since then the number has just gone up and up, with no sign of reduction.


The 2015 report, “Banking on Detention: Local Lockup Quotas & The Immigrant Dragnet”, published by Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights, provided more updated information. The number of people detained each year increased from 2009 to a record-breaking 477,000 in fiscal year 2012. As of 2015, 62% of immigration detention beds were operated by private prison companies. “This interdependent relationship with private industry has produced a set of government-sanctioned detention quotas that insure profits for the companies involved while incentivizing the incarceration of immigrants.” Accordingly, a large portion of the over $2 billion in fiscal year 2016 budget for detention operations will ultimately go to for-profit contractors.

To exacerbate the situation, ICE’s contracts with private detention companies impose local lockup quotas, or “guaranteed minimums”. Guaranteed minimums require government payment to contractors whether beds are filled or not, and thus function as local lockup quotas. The report concludes “. . . the growth of local lockup quotas is inextricably linked to the rise of corporate interests in immigration detention.” Publicly-traded prison corporation GEO Group has been most successful in getting guaranteed minimum clauses incorporated into their contracts, and thus their facilities now are often prioritized in order to fill local quotas. Among the reform recommendations contained in the report, the report “calls on ICE to stop contracting with private companies that lobby to pervert public policy via guaranteed minimums and other contractual giveaways.” “. . . that private sectors should not be rewarded for placing a price tag on the deprivation of liberty and the government should be held accountable for being a willful participant in this corrupted system.”

Outside Info

Mass Incarceration

The United States' problem with mass incarceration and private prisons cannot be overstated. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its inmates. The US’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, in fact more than 4 times the world’s average.

The US has 2.2 million people serving time in prisons and jails, and more than twice that many on probation or parole. Since 1980 this population has more than quadrupled. Private prisons enjoyed a re-birth in the U.S. that began in approximately 1980.

Outside Info

Racial Inequality

All around us there is evidence that racial inequality in the United States is a persistent and systemic issue. One place where it is easy to see the consequences of racial inequality is the private for-profit prison industry. Our system of mass incarceration falls most heavily on Black and Latino individuals and families.

Black and Latino people make up 30% of the USA population, showing the racial shift in the overall population. However more than 50% of the inmate population are Black and Latino. Black and Latino children are 2 to 7 times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than White children. Based on historical trends, nearly one third of Black men and one sixth of Latino men born in 2001 will serve time in prison. For black men, this is 5.5 times the rate of White men.

There is no debate that people of color disproportionately suffer at the hands of our criminal justice system generally, and even more so due to the private prison industry.

Outside Info


Recidivism represents an investment opportunity rather than a societal ill to private prison corporations. This dynamic create perverse incentives that discourage rehabilitation, successful re-entry programs, education, and alternatives to incarceration. This is because every inmate body in a prison cell represents a unit of profit on corporate balance sheets.

Outside Info

Economic Impact

If we want to understand the total impact of the private for-profit prison industry we must understand the economic impact of this industry. Because incarceration rates continue to increase, despite decreasing crime rates, real spending on incarceration exceeds $80 billion annually. Eleven states in the U.S. spend more on incarceration than higher education.

Indirect costs of incarceration add up to hundreds of billions of dollars annually in the USA. For example the U.S. system of mass incarceration hurts the poor, people of color, families and taxpayers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to be successful and attain the American Dream after coming out of the criminal justice system. The rise of the private for-profit prison industry has only made this worse. Government contracts with prison vendors have made it very profitable for large corporations and shareholders to put people into prisons. Private prisons are paid for each day prisoners occupy their prison cells which means they have no incentive to release prisoners. This profit motive is causing our society to incarcerate increasing numbers of people in private prisons. For-profit prisons financially benefit from long-term incarceration and recidivism.

Outside Info

American Academy of Arts and Sciences - Changes in State Funding

Privatization Data