For-profit prisons: Not in the business of justice

Janet Abrantes

On Sept. 26, 2022, an Appeals court once again blocked California’s ban on for-profit private prisons and immigration detention facilities, with the first effort to pass this law taking place last year. Despite the court’s ruling, private prisons should be banned as they profit from the mass incarceration of individuals, and thus encourage excessive punishment of minor offenders.


Private prisons benefit from locking people up, resulting in more people being imprisoned and incentivizing mass incarceration. A study by Washington State University researchers revealed a correlation between private prison growth and increased incarceration, theorizing that the increased capacity private prisons offer to the state contributes to this occurrence. Judges are more likely to be hesitant to sentence minor offenders time in prison if there is limited capacity; therefore, private prisons permit judges to over-sentence convicts. 


With little government oversight, for-profit prisons tend to exploit inmates for cheap labor and have more safety violations compared to their public counterparts. Companies like Microsoft, AT&T, Target, and Macy’s have been known to prefer inmate labor since it allows them to produce products at cheaper prices. According to an article by The Sentencing Project, compared to a select number of public facilities of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, for-profit facilities have “more safety and security incidents per capita,” such as stricter inmate discipline. Whereas the U.S. government is obligated to its people, socially-unconscious businesses will ignore the safety of inmates if it minimizes their profit.


Economically speaking, for-profit prisons tend to run at higher costs than public prisons. According to The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi, in 2011, private prison companies gained $5 billion from U.S. government contracts. When analyzed proportionally, private prisons operate at an additional cost of $5 per prisoner per day compared to public prisons. Even when ignoring all the ethical concerns of putting inmates in privately-run prisons, these prisons are still financially inefficient. 


Despite U.S. incarceration rates having risen dramatically in the last few decades, privately-run facilities don’t alleviate the burden of overcapacity for state prisons. Since the level of crime in the U.S. has fallen, it’s important to ask who the U.S. is imprisoning; the truth is about 60% of those imprisoned, according to a Center for Economic and Policy Research study, are non-violent offenders. Many have only committed minor crimes, and therefore should face lesser consequences such as community service instead. 


For-profit prisons aren’t in the business of justice, they are in the business of keeping people behind bars to line their pockets. It’s time to abandon these inhumane institutions.