The Rise of Private Prisons

Thanks to the total failure of the drug war, issues with immigration, and the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, the topic of private prisons has started to become part of the political conversation, and it’s about time. 

There is no doubt that the United States has some serious issues in its judicial, immigration, and prison system, and these problems have numerous layers. But, one of the first things the country can do to start making changes is to stop the use of private for-profit prisons. 

But unfortunately, we continue to head in the opposite direction.

You might think that private for-profit prisons are a relatively new trend in the world of corrections, but they actually date all the way back to the early 19th century. We have a long history in this country of incarcerating people for profit, and the first big boom of the private prison industry came after the Civil War and the passing of the 13th amendment. 

That historical amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” and that one little clausehas led to a billion-dollar industry that makes money on the back of something comparable to slave labor and legal human trafficking.

Governments justify the use of private prisons by arguing that the rising prison population costs too much money, which makes operating these facilities impossible. So, they contract out the management of prisons to private companies, who in turn have zero transparency on how they treat inmates and they are never held accountable for the conditions that the inmates live in.

Today’s for-profit prisons use a business model that treats human beings as slave labor that do everything from work in fields to staffing customer service call centers for a miniscule hourly wage. This incentivizes keeping people behind bars and treats people as a line item in a budget. 

Rehabilitation and treatment don’t seem to make it into the conversation when the focus is making money. 

Prisoners Built America

In the late 19th century, private prisons in the South housed prisoners on plantations and in company labor camps where they built levees, laid railroad tracks, and mined coal. 

To understand just how horrible the history of private prisons are in the United States, consider the fact that the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Beford Forrest, controlled all of the convicts in Mississippi for a period of time. Many of these people were prisoners of war, but still prisoners nonetheless.  

Companies like US Steel preferred to use prison labor because they could force the inmates to work for no money and they could torture the prisoners to get the work done. When you don’t have to pay your workers, that can lead to big profits. Companies then gave a portion of those profits to the states, and that kept the system in place.

Eventually, states started getting jealous of all of the money that private prisons were making, so in the early 20th century, most governments stopped leasing prisoners to private companies and bought the plantations so they could keep the profits for themselves. 

A decade after Mississippi stopped convict leasing, the state was making $14.7 million (in today’s dollars) because of prison labor, and this gave the idea to a man named Terrell Don Hutto that prisons should be a business.

Our Current Private Prison System Began in the 1980’s

After running state prisons in the 60s and 70s, Hutto decided it was time for him to profit on the slave labor the government was putting behind bars, and in 1983 he and his business partner Thomas Beasley, scored their first contract. It was an immigration detention contract and they had 90 days to build, finance, and operate a secure correctional facility, which they claim was the first of its kind.

Hutto says that he convinced a motel owner in Houston to lease the property to him, and then he hired his family as staff members. They built a 12-foot fence around the property with barbed wire on top, and for “fun” they left up the “Day Rates Available” sign from the motel.

They immediately started receiving inmates, and both Hutto and Beasley laugh about how they got started.

“We opened the facility on Super Bowl Sunday the end of that January,” Hutto recalls with a chuckle. “So about 10 o’clock that night, we started receiving inmates. I actually took their pictures and fingerprinted them…Several other people walked them to their ‘rooms,’ if you will, and we got our first day’s pay for 87 undocumented aliens.” 

That deal led to the creation of their company CCA – Corrections Corporation of America – which is now known as CoreCivic. It is now worth $1.8 billion, and is the second-largest operator of private prisons in the United States.

Currently, approximately eight percent of inmates in the US are housed in a private prison – operated mostly by CoreCivic or GeoGroup – and they also hold more than two-thirds of immigration detainees. 25 percent of CoreCivic’s revenue now comes from ICE detention centers.

Are the prisons that CoreCivic and Geo Group run as brutal as the labor camps in the late 19th century? No. 

But, that doesn’t mean the living conditions are acceptable, and the men and women housed in these facilities are not getting any kind of rehabilitation.

These places are all about keeping costs low, which means subpar medical care, horrible food and housing, and limited educational programs. Guards are also paid an extremely low hourly rate, and there is limited staff for prisons that are often overcrowded. 

This leads to a lot of violence, with a 2016 study from the Department of Justiceshowing that private prisons are much more violent than their state-run counterparts, which aren’t much better.

Recidivism in Private Prisons

Because private prisons rely on incarceration to generate revenue, there is no incentive for reducing recidivism rates. The Department of Justice says that 50 percent of prisoners return within three years of being released, but incarceration in private prisons increases the risk of recidivism by an additional 20 percent.

Private prisons have a business model that requires them to generate profit, and that means the goal is to have every bed filled. When the interest is making money instead of rehabilitation and decreasing incarceration levels, there is no way the recidivism rate goes down.

Business is booming in the world of private prisons, and they are doing everything they can to make sure it stays that way. The Sentencing Project found that CoreCivic spent $1.4 million per year on lobbying at the federal level between 1999 and 2010, and these companies also help develop “tough on crime” initiatives for numerous states.

These companies are influencing legislation and lobbying for long sentences – like the 1994 “three strikes law” which gives mandatory life sentences to anyone who commits more than two serious crimes. 

Since then, the number of people serving life sentences has increased more than 80 percent.

However, the majority of people who are incarcerated are behind bars for low-level non-violent drug offenses, and this is thanks to the drug war that the private prison industry has fully endorsed.

Private prisons are making a ton of money, and at the same time there is absolutely no evidence that they are saving ting tax payers a dime. 

It’s time for criminal justice reform, and getting rid of private prisons is a fantastic first step.


Ron Stefanski is the founder and creator of, a website focused on helping the families of those who are currently incarcerated to better navigate the prison system and hold prisons accountable for their treatment of current and former inmates.

Image source: Creative Commons