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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



Part I: History of Private Prisons
The Convict Lease System


Private prisons have a long history. In the 1880s private correctional organizations created the Convict Lease System, perhaps the first privatized prison system in America. Implemented primarily in the Southern States during the reconstruction period, this system consisted of private organizations leasing out prisoners to work for other companies, such as the railroad and construction industries. Private correctional systems took full responsibility for housing and monitoring prison behavior. The system freed states from providing a budget for state run prisons. Indeed, states received a portion of the money income prisoners made, and thus, the system generated a profit (Reed, 1907).

Despite the plus to the state budget, a negative environment characterized these facilities. Hard labor, brutal living and hygiene conditions, expressed hopelessness by offenders, constant riots and physical confrontations between inmates and between inmates and guards, high mortality rates, poor diets and undernourishment, whippings, overcrowding, and discrimination and exploitation of offenders occurred frequently in these early private prison environments (Perkinson, 2009). Another negative aspect of the convict leasing system is that it appeared to replace the slavery system, particularly since the majority of labor force prisoners, over 80%, were African American (Zito, 2003). Whites under this system were treated more humanly and faced less jail time than their ethnic counterparts. Typically, a jail sentence of 10 years or more, given consistently to African Americans, equated to a death sentence (Perkinson, 2009).

Convict laborers at work on the granite columns for the Texas State Capitol construction, circa 1885. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives.

Louisiana was the first state, in the 1880s, to contract with private entrepreneurs to house inmates in for-profit correctional facilities and participate in the convict lease system. New York's Auburn and Sing Sing prisons were also among the first privatized prisons, along with several that emerged in the southern states. Smith writes, "These institutions became models for entire sections of the nation where privatized prisons were the norm later in the century" (Smith, 1993). For 20 years convict leasing was the most popular correctional system in the United States; however, "By the turn of the century, concerted opposition from labor, business, and reformers forced the state to take direct responsibility for prisons, thus bringing the first era of private prisons to an end" (Smith, 1993). Thus, private prisons did not operate from the turn-of-the century until the 1980s, nearly a decade later.

Go To 1980s to the Present

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