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Detainees make phone calls at a federal immigration detention center in California that is run by the private GEO Group.
The Lowdown

Here's Why Abolishing Private Prisons Isn't a Silver Bullet

The vast majority of prisoners are held in publicly run prisons. But the private sector affects their incarceration in different ways.

Democratic candidates for president are fed up with the American criminal justice system, and private prisons are a favorite culprit. Cory Booker called them “repugnant.” Bernie Sanders wrote that the industry has “racist roots in American chattel slavery.” Elizabeth Warren released a plan to ban private prisons and detention facilities and to prohibit contractors from charging for an array of services including phone calls, bank transfers, health care, and probation services. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who has faced criticism of her criminal justice record, tweeted recently that “phasing out detention centers and private prisons” would be one of her first acts as president.

And it’s not just candidates—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have all taken steps to end their financial relationships with private prison companies. Universities and cities have launched divestment campaigns. In 2016, the Obama administration announced the Federal Bureau of Prisons would phase out its use of private prisons, though the decision was reversed by the Trump administration shortly after.

Despite their infamy, private prisons house less than a twelfth of the country’s prisoners. What is more common is public prisons deciding to outsource services—healthcare, food, communication—to private companies. That’s to say, private companies still have a direct impact on the lives of incarcerated people throughout the U.S., but their role is slightly more complicated.

How many people are serving time in private prisons?

In 2017, 8.2 percent of U.S. prisoners—121,420 people—were held in private prisons, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This works out to about 15 percent of federal prisoners and 7 percent of state prisoners at the time. At least 27 states incarcerated people in private facilities, and eight of those states used private facilities to house at least 15 percent of their prison populations (not all states reported data). Montana topped that list with 38 percent of prisoners in private facilities.

Still, across the country the Sentencing Project found that between 2000 and 2016, “the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population,” while the “proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent.”

Although private facilities are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to prisons, the opposite is true for immigration detention facilities. According to the Detention Watch Network, more than 70 percent of immigration detainees are held in facilities operated by private companies.

How do private companies operate within public prisons?

We know that the majority of prisoners serve time in publicly run systems. But private companies still loom over their time there. This is because public prisons contract with private companies to provide a variety of services—healthcare, food, transportation, financial services and messaging, phone and video calls, to name a few. Private companies are also making big investments in reentry, electronic monitoring and drug treatment programs.

Which companies are we talking about?

The most dominant companies running corrections facilities in the U.S. are CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), the GEO Group and Management & Training Corporation (MTC). But there are many other companies involved in the criminal legal system in a variety of different ways. In April, Worth Rises published a report identifying roughly 4,000 private sector companies in this area.

How did we get here?

Private prisons as we know them today started opening up shop in the U.S. in the 1980s, coinciding with booming prison populations. CoreCivic, then Corrections Corporation of America, was founded in 1983 and began operating facilities in Tennessee in 1984. From there, private prison companies took off, expanding the capacity of increasingly overburdened carceral systems.

This increased capacity thanks to growth of private prisons allowed officials to avoid wrestling with how to reduce prison populations, said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, author of "Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration".

Still, the practice of using captive labor for private industry has a long history in the U.S. Shane Bauer, who spent four months undercover in a CoreCivic prison, tracks prison privatization back to the mid-19th century South, when Louisiana privatized its penitentiary with a company that used inmates to manufacture clothes for enslaved people.

What do the private prison companies say?

Private prison companies argue they save taxpayer dollars, follow government regulations and connect inmates with re-entry resources.

Brandon Bissell, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, said in a statement that criticism of his company and the industry was characterized by “misinformation” and “sends a terrible message to others in the private sector who are working to help our government solve serious problems in ways it could not do alone.”

Similarly, the GEO Group emphasized that the company has provided “high-quality services to the federal government under both Democratic and Republican administrations” and that it would “welcome all lawmakers and presidential candidates to visit our facilities, speak with our employees and hear directly from those individuals in our care.”

Issa Arnita, a spokesperson for MTC, said in a statement that “getting rid of private prisons would not solve our country’s incarceration problem” and noted that the company “supports common sense criminal justice reform like the recently enacted First Step Act” and “uses evidence-based programs to help men and women make lasting changes in their lives.”

All three companies said they did not manage facilities that house unaccompanied minors or border patrol holding facilities.

Short of abolishing private prisons, what other options are there?

Some researchers are turning their attention toward restructuring private prison contracts, rather than banning private involvement in the prison sector.

“The reality is that private prisons are a tool, and like all tools, you can use them well or use them poorly,” Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, said

One alternative is performance-based contracts, which are in place in prison systems in Australia and New Zealand and link payment to measurable good outcomes.

But these models aren’t silver bullets either, Eisen said. An ombudsman report raised concerns over confinement conditions at one of the performance-based facilities Eisen visited in New Zealand, even though that facility had met its goal of reducing recidivism.

Mia Armstrong Twitter Email Mia Armstrong is a writer based in Mexico City. In addition to The Marshall Project, where she formerly interned, her work has been published in the New York Times, Slate, Longreads, Nexos and Letras Libres. She has taught writing in prisons throughout Arizona.