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Public and Private Prisons


Investigations show that US prisons’ population has quadrupled in the last twenty years. By the year 2000, statistics indicated that about 1.9 million people were behind bars. This made private corporations to look out for opportunities in this sector in order to maximize their profit margin (Beck & Harrison, 2001). The increased demand by citizens to toughen crime control and their relaxation on their tax money which was channeled to incarceration facilities made entrepreneurs to start private correctional corporations to manage public prisons. The key areas of concern on the impact of prison privatization to the American society are in terms of the cost savings, provision of quality services and safety measures and these issues differ in the case of public prison. Other raised issues about privatizing of prisons in America includes non unionized work force, general economic conditions, fiscal pressures and the country’s economic constraints as well as labor markets(Greene,1999).

Similarities between Private and Public Prisons

The major similarity between private and public prisons is that they both are prisons. To be imprisoned, first and foremost, is a form of punishment to the offenders. It is a way of removing liberty from the offenders by placing them in a structure why they are forced to comply with a tough rules and administration. The rights of the prisoners are usually limited. Though a punishment, prison life offers a chance to the offenders to reform and change their behavior (Ministry of Justice, 2010).

Secondly, the prisons enhance skills for the offenders by offering education programs. This is done with the help of private sectors to who provide a range of constructive work to the offenders. The initiatives are made through shared programs of work with other departments such as the department for work and pension. The main aim is to increase skills and to offer employment opportunities to reformed offenders after sentence. More so, they provide the offenders with support and the right motivation to reduce the rate of re-offending. Re-offending rates had reached 9% by 2009. More so, the prison service aim is to keep prisoners in secured institution. This is to treat the offenders’ in a humane way and rehabilitate them so that they transform their lives into those of law abiding within the prison and after their sentence (Ministry of Justice, 2010).


Cost Saving

Increase in incarceration rate is attributed to the high rate of unemployment, poverty, income inequality, conflict between races and political conservation (Mauer, 1999). The idea of prison privatization gained popularity when Reagan won election support through the idea of small government and free market. More so, the rising population had resulted to overcrowding the prisons and large portion of the tax payers’ money was being used to run the prisons. The overcrowded prisons endangered inmates’ health and safety conditions and there were reported cases of violence. The total government spending had increased by 74% within period of four years, from $4.5 billon in 1980 to $us 7.7 billion in 1984 (Greene, 1999). Bureau of Justice in 2000 indicated government expenditure to be $ 29 billion in the correctional facilities.

The corrections corporation of America (CCA) was the first private corporation. It is currently the largest holding over 50% to the US market. In the last 13 years, private prisons have increased by 300 percent. Proponents for prison privatization argue that it lowers incarceration financial cost. This aids the government from the fiscal crises. Others claims that cost saving is insignificant and that it is reached through sacrificing service quality (Schneider, 2000).

The largest expenditure of prison budget is identified as salary to the employees and benefits covering up to 60 percent. This means that the private corporations are forced to reduce the cost by hiring at lower wages and unionization elimination. The maximum wages in public prisons is at $36000 compared to $22000 in the private sector (The Criminal Justice Institute, 2000). Researchers argue that lower labor cost has led to poor quality and stability of the work force. This in turn raises the turnover rate to 52% compared to 16% in the public sector (The Criminal Justice Institute, 2000).

The outcome is high level of corruption, increased inmates abuse and security issues. In turn, there is creation of a “hidden cost “caused by inmate’s escapes and thus causing threats to public safety. Cost efficiency remains a puzzle for most of the researchers. Therefore, it is up to the policy makers to weigh the need to assure the level of quality services that are comparable between the public and the private prisons and those that correlate to the set standards by the American, Correctional Association (ACA) (Greene, 1999).

Prison Quality Services

The quality comparison conducted indicates that privatization of prisons does not compromise on quality. Quality advantage on the side of privatized prisons was the finding highlighted by a study done on urban institutes. The study indicated that there were fewer escapes and inmates disturbances. Another study by Welkept (1991) also indicated quality performance in privatized prisons. On recidivism rates for offenders released from the public and private prisons it was shown that those released from private prisons had better recidivist. For those who had re–offended, the seriousness for the crime was lower than the previous one (Greene, 1999).

Research undertaken by urban institutes showed that there was quality service in regard to housing of both adults and juveniles in private prisons than in public prisons. The study showed that the public prison housed an overcrowded population. Logan’s research also indicated that private prisons were superior to public prison in most of the areas apart from the care or safety issues which showed a tie between the public and private prisons (Greene, 1999).

Prison Facilities

Contractor Performance and Quality case study by Florida corrections commission (1996) annual report found that most of the privatized facilities were fully air conditioned. Technology advancement was also observed to be high in privatized prisons than public prisons. This included presence of monitoring cameras, computerized tracking system, correctional officer body alarms, camera monitored perimeter alarms. Further more, values were instilled to the offenders through participation in academic and vocational training. These training also incorporated health training and counseling on such issues such as HIV and Aids, and dangers of drug abuse among many others (Greene, 1999).

When the facilities were compared to public prisons, they were lagging behind in provision of value instilling programs resulting to an added advantage to the privatized prisons in terms of management of tools necessary for controlling negative inmate behavior.

More so, there are about 5, 000 public and private prisons in US. There are only 532 accredited by the ACA (American, Correctional Association). 465 of them are privatized prisons while 77 are public. This implies that only 10 % of public prisons have been accredited compared to 445 private prisons. The great difference indicates that private prisons are providing quality services (Segal, 2005).

Prison Safety

The overcrowded public prisons endanger inmates’ health and safety conditions and there are reported cases of violence. A survey conducted in Arizona showed that private prisons complied with the professional standards. There were reduced cases of injury, death of staff and inmates in private prisons than public prisons (Greene, 1999). Investigations on Minnesota inmate review indicated that access to health and dental care to be identical in both public and privatized prisons. However, health workers interaction with the inmates was found to be of regular basis to the privatized prisons than the public prisons (Greene, 1999).


Despite the fact that private prisons have occupied a fast growing and great profile in the incarceration facilities in the US, there are few investigations and evaluations of these correctional facilities. Most of the researches hold strongly the belief that privatization leads to cost effectiveness which cannot be achieved by public prisons. However, there is a need for more empirical evidence to determine the correctness of this statement. The information existing on provision of quality services and cost effectiveness are not definitive. The findings are often contradictory. This has made the various critical issues raised to be left unresolved. However, what is clear is that the competition between the two incarceration centers yields a healthy stimulant for better cost efficiency.

The questions raised by critics about the benefits of prison privatization really entails sacrificing of quality to cut cost and still remains insufficiently addressed to allow confident conclusion. Most of the studies carried out have numerous methodological shortcomings such use of non random groups for comparisons, comparing of prisons that are of disparate geographical locations of dissimilar correctional the population studied.


Beck, A. & Harrison, P. (2001). Prison and jail inn mates 2000. Washington, DC, US: Department of Justice.

Greene, J. (1999). Comparing private and public service and programs in Minnesota: findings form prisoner interviews. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 11(1), 202-232.

Mauer, M. (1999). The race to incarcerate. New York, NY: The new press.

Ministry of Justice. (2010). Government response to the justice selects committee’s report: role of the prison officer. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Schneider, L. (2000). Public private partnership in the US prison system “public- private policy partnerships. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.

Segal, G. (2005). Comparing public and private prisons on quality: reason foundation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.

The Criminal Justice Institute. (2000). The corrections Year book, middle town, CT. New York, NY: The criminal justice institute, Inc.

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