Why abolish private prisons?

Coalition Letter to Governor Hobbs

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

Private prison corporations make more money for their shareholders when more people are incarcerated and for longer terms, profiting off the ruination of families and societal decay that comes from mass incarceration.

Corporations have every incentive to keep people in prison for longer, under worse conditions, and make sure they return by offering fewer rehabilitative programs.

Government abandonment of responsibility

Keeping the country safe by separating dangerous individuals from the rest of the population is a core government function that cannot be delegated to a private company whose interest is making money.

An individual’s liberty may not be taken without “due process of law”. The taking of liberty is an inherent governmental function that may not be delegated to profit-making ventures.

Conflict of Interest: Profits vs. Human Rights

Private prisons seek high occupancy rates and have no incentive to release prisoners. They make more money when prisoners stay longer and when they return to prison. There is strong evidence of private prisons cutting staffing and rehabilitative programs to increase profits, as well as writing incident reports that affect early-release time credits and eligibility for parole.

Lack of Accountability

The prison corporation is not transparent. The people who run them are not accountable to the voters.

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 guarantee 90% occupancy and taxpayer payment for empty beds.

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It’s a moral issue as well as a legal issue.

This is about what kind of country we are and that our younger generations will inherit.

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.

Modern-Day Slavery

The United States has a dark history of exploiting the lives of disadvantaged groups (usually people of color) for the profit of the powerful – from colonial slavery through coolie labor, black codes, and Jim Crow laws, the government has sanctioned this practice. Locking people up for profit is simply the latest incarnation of slavery.
Private prisons reduce people to “compensated man-days” – the exact term used by these corporations to discuss the economic value of a person in a private prison in their mandatory SEC filings. Stripping a person of their humanity to maximally extract value from their existence mirrors the behavior of slave traders in the 18th century.

Mass-Incarceration Problem

Mass incarceration is one of the greatest civil rights challenge of the 21st century. Injecting a profit motive into incarceration makes it less likely that we can achieve meaningful reform. Giant corporations rely on full beds and cheap labor, and they can spend enormous amounts of money lobbying for the status quo, or worse.


The inmate himself or herself becomes a commodity, a de-humanized source of profit for the corporations. 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.

Immigration Detention

Private prison corporations spotted a business opportunity when the federal government started to detain large numbers of Cuban and Haitian migrants in the 1980s. The similarity of payment models between private prisons and hotels (per diem rates for each bed) should be no surprise, because the first private detention center was literally nothing more than an old hotel purchased by CoreCivic (then CCA).

Explosive Growth

Seeing the lucrative nature of this arrangement, CoreCivic worked alongside the federal government as the number of immigrants exploded: from a very minimal amount in the 1970s, to thousands in the 1980s, to tens of thousands in the 2000s. And private prisons hold the vast majority of detained immigrants; although the number is constantly in flux, it hovers around 80% of all detainees that are in private facilities.

Fueling the Fire

Private prison corporations were not passive beneficiaries of this inhumane practice. Rather, they played a key role in encouraging ever-greater detention. In fact, there is a circle of grifting, where private prison corporations, their lobbyists, and politicians are all enriched at the expense of the people in detention centers and the general public. Money flows from the government’s general fund (that is, your tax dollars) to the private prison corporation; some of that money is skimmed off as “profit” for the shareholders and executives; and some of that money goes to lobbyists and directly to politicians in the form of campaign contributions (or donated to inauguration parties).


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 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.

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
  • 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 lawsuits?

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. That case is currently on appeal. We will file in other states as well.

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.