Privately Operated Prisons vs Government-Operated Research Paper

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In this regard, Fathi adds that the Standards stipulate that: "When private facilities are used, the Standards require multiple means of oversight, including applicability of freedom of information laws; contract provisions for oversight; and on-site monitoring by the contracting agency" (2010, p. 1455).

Further complicating the debate over which is better is the fact that private prisons are increasingly being used for Homeland Security purposes in ways that create further transparency issues and allow these privately operated facilities to avoid intensive scrutiny. For instance, Handley (2011) reports that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), "the private prison industry's largest company, has contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshal Service, and is also the nations largest detainer of undocumented immigrants" (2011, p. 9). On the one hand, critics of private prison corporation such as CCA argue that the privatization of this function of the justice system is subverting oversight in ways that are not evident in government-operated prisons. For instance, Handley (2011) emphasizes that, "Since the company began to receive ICE contracts in 2000, immigrant rights groups have been targeting CCA for prisoner abuse, poor working conditions for guards and the company's connections to anti-immigrant legislation" (2011, p. 9). On the other hand, though, CCA cites its ability to provide these services in a cost-effective fashion as proof positive of their being "better" than their government-operation counterparts. In this regard, the CCA Web site states that:

Our approach to public-private partnership in corrections combines the cost savings and innovation of business with the strict guidelines and consistent oversight of government. This has produced proven results for more than a quarter-century. CCA designs, builds, manages and operates correctional facilities and detention centers on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Marshals Service, nearly half of all states and nearly a dozen counties across the country. CCA benefits America by protecting public safety, employing the best people in solid careers, rehabilitating inmates, giving back to communities, and bringing innovative security to government corrections -- all while consistently saving hardworking taxpayers' dollars (emphasis added). (CCA, 2012, para. 1)

Some indication of the true cost savings that are supposed to be achieved by using private prisons over government-operated facilities, though, can be discerned from a recent analysis conducted by the Arizona Bureau of Planning, Budget and Research. The Bureau reported that the total adjusted per diem (i.e., per prisoner, per day) costs for state-operated medium security facilities was $48.42; by contrast, the per diem for medium security prisoners held by private contractors was $53.02 (Hodai, 2012). According to Hodai, the report also:

. . . noted a whopping savings of three cents per head among the relatively low-maintenance minimum security crowd held in private pens - at $46.56 per them for a private bed, versus $46.59 at state-run institutions. But the report goes on to quickly deflate the standing of that $0.03 margin, stating: '[There are several] inmate management functions that are provided and paid for by the state but are not provided by the private contractors. This inequity increases the state per capita cost which, in comparison, artificially lowers the private bed cost'" (emphasis added) (2012, p. 10)

Moreover, government-operated prisons as part of the larger justice system that administers these facilities in ways that conform to a wide array of mandated requirements that do not always apply to their privately operated counterparts. For instance, the U.S. Office of Justice Programs Web site makes it clear that the supervision of prisoners does not end with their incarceration but rather extends to the provision of other services in the community following release.

From the government's perspective, these extended measures serve to reduce recidivism rates and reduce costs to American taxpayers. From the private prison industry's perspective, though, these initiatives just reduce their customer base and are contrary to their profit motive. In this regard, the OJP states that: "approximately 7.1 million men and women were under adult correctional supervision in the nation's prisons or jails or on probation or parole at yearend 2010. About 70% (4.9 million) of the adults under correctional supervision at yearend 2010 were supervised in the community (either probation or parole) while 30% (2.2 million) were incarcerated in the nation's prisons or jails" (Corrections, 2012, para. 2). In sum, by the end of 2010, approximately one out of every 33 adult U.S. residents was subject to the oversight of the American judicial system through supervised community programs or was actually incarcerated in a prison, representing 962 inmates per 100,000 adult U.S. residents being incarcerated in state or federal prison or in local jails at the end of 2010 (Corrections, 2012). Clearly, there is a lot of money at stake in this analysis, and the follow-the-money trail leads directly into the hands of the for-profits corporations that are purportedly "better" because they are more cost effective in doing the same job that their government counterparts have failed to deliver. Nevertheless, it is apparent that there is much more involved in the provision of timely and effective correctional services than the bottom line enjoyed by CCA and their ilk today.


The answer to the question concerning whether private-run prisons are "better" than government-operated correctional facilities clearly depends on who is doing the asking and who is doing the answering. From the perspective of the average American taxpayer, private prisons may appear to be better simply because they cost less than their government-operated counterparts. From the perspective of the victims of the people who are incarcerated, private prisons may appear to be "worse" because the perpetrators are not be sufficiently punished but are rather allowed to live in relative comfort and security of cushy private prisons. From the perspective of the inmates, themselves, it is reasonable to suggest that privately operated prisons are "better" because they feature better services, food and security compared to their government-operated counterparts. Although privately operated prisons are a good business solution to an expensive problem, this alternative was shown to be fraught with hidden costs and disadvantages that make an across-the-board comparison problematic. In the final analysis, private prisons will probably continue to proliferate unless and until these hidden costs are made known, and the American taxpayers realizes that they are being bilked to the tune of billions of dollars a year.


CCA. (2012). Corrections Corporation of America. Retrieved from

Corrections. (2012). Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved from / programs/corrections.htm.

Courts. (2012). Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved from

Coyle, a., Campbell, a. & Neufeld, R. (2003). Capitalist punishment: Prison privatization & human rights. Atlanta: Clarity Press.

Fathi, D.C. (2010, Fall). The challenge of prison oversight. American Criminal Law Review,

47(4), 1453-1469.

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