This week, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing the Department of Justice to not renew contracts with privately operated prisons – a process that had been started once before during the Obama administration but was reversed under President Donald Trump. Biden cited the inherent problem of private prisons having a commercial interest of keeping inmates incarcerated as a reason for his decision. In fact, research has shown that private prisons can increase incarceration rates and lengths by several factors including corruption, lobbying, increase of capacity and higher rates of violence in private prisons leading to penalties for inmates and later releases.
Private prisons make a profit – an estimated $374 million annually – giving them an incentive to cut costs more than public facilities. Private facilities have been shown to hire fewer staff and train them less. They also pay less, leading to higher turnover and less experienced and well-equipped officers. An analysis of 2014 data by the Department of Justice – the only of its kind – shows that violence and infractions in private prisons are elevated. The same analysis shows that private prisons spent 12 percent less per inmate, but since they are not housing maximum security prisoners, the savings might not actually translate. Several local studies have found mixed results for private prison cost savings. Researchers from the Universities of Minnesota and New Mexico have pointed out that the structural deficits of private prisons might increase incarceration costs in the long run by lengthening sentences and increasing recidivism.
The graphic below also shows that by only addressing the Department of Justice, Biden is leaving out a significant portion of people held in federal private facilities in the United States – those in immigration detention. In 2017, the only data available from ICE, 73 percent of detainees were held in private facilities – the equivalent of 26,000 people. The eight percent of federal and state prisoners held in private detention translated to about an equal number of federal inmates in private prisons in 2019, while another 88,000 in private state detention are also still left out.
Since 2017, the number of immigrant detainees has risen sharply to about 50,000, which at the same rate of private detention would mean more than 36,000 private immigration inmates existed in 2019. In reality, the share of detainees which are held in private facilities has been increasing. In 2002, private facilities still held less than a quarter of immigration detainees. While federal and state inmate populations in the U.S. are only 50,000 higher than the were in the year 2000 (+3.5 percent), the small population held in private prisons rose by 28,000 people in the same time frame (+33 percent).