The risks of privatizing government services have been highlighted by the recent bad experience with private prisons. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it will end its 20 years of using privately-run, for-profit prisons due to significant, clear cut problems.

A DOJ Inspector General’s report in August 2016 found that private prisons were less safe, less secure, and more costly than the BOP’s own government-run prisons. Among other problems, dozens of deaths linked to substandard medical care were documented. [1] Private prisons also had higher rates of assaults and 9 times more lockdowns (used to quell disturbances and punish prisoners) than government-run facilities.

Earlier reports on the BOP’s privatized prisons had found that any cost savings were negated by the costs of oversight and that the quality of services was lacking. These are common problems with privatization. Frequently, the cost of oversight is not factored into the cost-benefit analysis of privatization. Therefore, privatization may appear to save money when in actuality it doesn’t. Furthermore, the oversight that occurs is often unsuccessful in ensuring efficient and high quality performance by the private provider, as occurred with the BOP’s private prisons.

Despite these earlier findings, the use of private prisons grew and by fiscal year 2015 the BOP was paying private prison contractors $1.05 billion a year. [2] Today, the BOP houses about 22,000 of its prisoners in 13 private prisons out of a total of roughly 175,000 prisoners under its jurisdiction. Its announcement stated that it will phase out the use of these private prisons as their contracts expire over the next few years.

The US Department of Homeland Security, on the other hand, has said nothing about its future use of private detention facilities, which house about 25,000 immigrants. These detention centers have also been found to provide substandard medical care linked to deaths. They also have experienced high suicide rates. [3]

Turning over a public service to a private, for-profit corporation often creates perverse and counterproductive incentives. Privatization at the BOP, as in most cases, was focused on reducing public sector costs. The goals of minimizing cost and maximizing profit often conflict with the social mission of a public service. In the case of privatized prisons, the goals of humane treatment and rehabilitation are undermined.

In private prisons, the corporate providers cut costs (and increase profits) by increasing the number of inmates in a facility (resulting in overcrowding); decreasing the services provided to them (including rehabilitation, education, job training, and medical care); providing cheap (and sometimes unhealthy) food; using substandard facilities; and decreasing the number, pay, and training of staff (including guards, supervisors, and medical staff). In addition, to generate revenue, they charge fees to inmates and their families (that are often unaffordable), and also sell inmate labor typically without paying the inmates for it. [4] Another frequent problem with privatization is that private providers bill government for services that were not needed or in some cases were not actually provided in order to increase revenue and profits.

Because the for-profit prison corporations are private entities, they are not subject to public information laws. This lack of transparency is another frequent problem with privatization. Not surprisingly, the for-profit prison corporations tend to be quite secretive, which makes public scrutiny of them and their service delivery difficult.

The private prison business began in the 1980s. The war on drugs was underway; tough on crime and strict sentencing laws were in their political heyday. Between 1980 and 1990, state spending on prisons quadrupled and still many prison were over-crowded. [5]

At the federal level, detention of undocumented immigrants exploded in the 1990s. Until then, border crossing was treated as a civil offense, punishable by deportation. But then, as part of the tough on crime and anti-immigrant politics, Congress changed that. By 1996, crossing the border was a federal crime. Prosecutions for illegal entry rose from fewer than 4,000 in 1992, to 31,000 in 2004 under President George W. Bush, to a high of 91,000 in 2013 under President Obama.

Privatization of public services was a hot topic in the 1980s as it was purported to be more efficient, to reduce costs, improve quality, and reduce government expenditures. It also provided opportunities for private profit.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that privatization of prisons blossomed as a way to meet a growing need and, supposedly, reduce governments’ costs. To handle the flood of undocumented immigrants into its prisons, the BOP turned to private corporations to operate a new type of facility: low-security prisons designed to hold only non-citizens. As of June 2015, these facilities — which are distinct from immigration detention centers, where people are held pending deportation — housed nearly 23,000 people. Three private corporations now run 11 immigrant-only prisons for BOP: five are run by the GEO Group, four by the Corrections Corporation of America, and two by the Management & Training Corporation. [6]

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) began operation in 1983 and grew from 5 facilities in 1986 to 60 today. It houses 66,000 inmates and in 2015 reported revenue of $1.9 billion with net income of $221 million. Its main competitor is GEO Group, which has 70,000 inmates in its private facilities.

The problems with private prisons have come to public attention largely due to investigative journalism by The Nation and Mother Jones. My next post will provide an overview of their reporting. The failures of the BOP’s 20-year experience with private prisons hold many lessons for efforts to privatize other government services including roads, bridges, and public transportation; schools; water and sewer systems; and trash collection.

[1]       Wessler, S.F., 8/18/16, “The Justice Department will end all federal private prisons, following a ‘Nation’ investigation,” The Nation (

[2]     Wessler, S.F., 6/15/16, “Federal officials ignored years of internal warnings about deaths at private prisons,” The Nation (

[3]       Editorial, 8/27/16, “Dump private prisons – all of them,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Vanden Heuvel, K., 8/23/16, “On private federal prisons, a victory for independent journalism,” The Washington Post

[5]       Bauer, S., July / August 2016, “My four months as a private prison guard,” Mother Jones (

[6]       Wessler, S.F., 1/28/16, “ ‘This man will almost certainly die’,” The Nation (


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