Discovery Guides Areas


The Drain of Public Prison Systems and the Role of Privatization:
A Case Study of State Correctional Systems

(Released February 2010)

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  by David W. Miller  


Key Citations



Prison Culture


Prison overcrowding creates psychological harm, adds more fuel to already poor inmate-to-inmate relations, and encourages institutional practices that create a degrading environment (Haney, 2009). Thus, overcrowding can have a severe impact on aggressive prisoner behavior, and is identified as the primary cause of poor prison conditions. For instance, Steiner (2009) notes that an increased prisoner population leads to increased violence and abuse between prisoners and between prisoners and guards and solidifies a culture of aggression and punishment. Since public prisons are more overcrowded than private prisons, one would expect prison culture to be worse in public prisons. Although some states passed laws limiting the number of inmates to one per cell after offenders filed lawsuits on violations of their 8th amendment rights, many prisons still operate beyond population capacity by constructing short-term prison cells, and other states continue to house two or more inmates per cell. Also, as already seen, public prisons nationwide are operating beyond capacity, with the best 33% above capacity limits, and the worst 250% above capacity limits. Private prisons avoid overcrowding due to two factors: (1) they can limit the number of prisoners entering the system, and (2) they can build additional structures on current prison sites (i.e. add additional units to existing structures) or construct prisons at new locations much faster than the Federal Government. Indeed, Ashcroft (2001) noted that private prisons plan and construct two to three times faster than the Federal Government, making it easier to address overcrowding.

many, many prisoners
Crowded Prisoners

Current research supports the hypothesis that overcrowding leads to more violence. For instance, Camp (2002) interviewed prisoners to explore factors that negatively impact the living environment of public versus private prisons. He compared the following elements: gang activity and management, safety, sanitation, and food service. Camp discovered that prisoners in public correctional facilities expressed less satisfaction due to the characteristics listed above, and thus his research confirms that prison cultures are worse in public than private prisons.

Indeed, the worsening public prison culture is cited as one of the primary reasons, along with economic factors, for the growth of privatized prisons. Taylor (2008) reports that understaffing creates risks of violence, resulting in poor morale and increased turnover. Staff to prisoner ratios directly influence prison culture, with private prisons offering a better ratio. Further, guard-prison relations are of a higher quality in private prisons because of a shift away from aggressive and punitive measures to less authoritative practices and a focus on goal-oriented treatment (Schleifer, 1998). In short, private prisons are able to foster more positive relations between guards and prisoners due to a better staff-to-prisoner ratio. This in turn impacts the ability of private prisons to implement vocational and other types of programs that might have been cut from public prison systems. In addition, prison personnel are able to create treatment plans for each offender rather than simply warehousing the convict until a release date arrives. Thus, although some argue that private prisons focus on profits, Schleifer's (1998) study suggests that they may foster a new era of rehabilitative practices rather than punitive ones. Lastly, Mitchell finds that 13 out of 50 state correction departments were under order to address poor living conditions while no private prison has ever faced a court order on this issue. Mitchell attributes this difference to accreditation, given for quality services and safe environments, which he suggests improves private prisons. Forty-four percent in comparison to 10% of public prisons are accredited.

One potential drawback to privatized prisons is that staff is often underqualified, leading to more physical confrontations between inmates and staff: "The cost of poor quality is then shifted onto the public sector as county or state police deal with escapees, court systems cope with prison lawsuits and public hospitals treat injured inmates" (Clement, 2002) However, the growth of accreditation of the top three providers of privately operated prisons suggests that private prison staff is better trained now than in 2002. Further, less violence appears to occur in private facilities, showing that private prisons have addressed this issue or have hired better trained guards, or some other factor is occurring. Additionally, despite concerns over a decrease in quality of services in private prisons, a study by CCA notes, "most states place legal requirements in their contracts that correction management firms must offer programs and services that are at least equivalent to those provided by government agencies" (2003). To ensure quality and compliance each prison is required to have an onsite auditor with full access to all records. Furthermore, to decrease the likelihood of understaffing to increase profitability, private prisons face fines if they do not meet a minimum staffing requirement (Zito, 2003).

In short, privately funded prisons appear better than publicly operated prisons on at least two of the three variables presented here. First, they appear to be more cost-effective, as evidenced by micro-level comparisons of public versus private prisons in the same state or across state lines. Second, they appear to offer a safer and more humane prison environment. Finally, although further studies that compare recidivism rates are needed, as private prisons implement more rehabilitative programs and treatment models into their services, recidivism rates are expected to drop. As such, this particular variable should be analyzed more fully in future studies.

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