Prisons = Profit?

The prison population of the United States is around 1.6 million and growing at an alarming rate (Mason). As the need for more prison facilities has grown, so has the use of prison privatization to meet the demand. The amount of prisoners placed in private prisons within the US increased 1600% between 1990 and 2009. This increase in prison privatization is a result of the high cost that incarceration entails (Banking). The average inmate costs taxpayers about $31,000 per year with New York having the highest cost of incarceration with 60,000 spent per year on the average prisoner (Henrichson). This cost is higher than that of a student attending Whitman College, room and board included (Whitman). With these high costs, it is no wonder that lawmakers have been looking for ways to cut spending.

Prison privatization has been a method of choice by lawmakers to lower the staggering costs of incarceration. Private corporations offer lower prices per prisoners making privatization appear to be an effective tool for keeping up with the rising demand for incarceration within the United States. However, prison privatization is not without costs.

When prisons are privately operated, they are run like private firms, cutting costs whenever possible. These methods of reducing costs do not make the prison system more efficient, but instead lower prisoners’ standard of living. Costs are cut by lowering the food quality, sanitation and safety of prisons. Several empirical studies show that there is more violence against prisoners in private prisons than in those that are publicly run. Multiple private corporations have received multiple allegations of unsafe conditions within their prisons. They have been accused of lacking of properly experienced guards and having “filthy”cells, “smelling of urine and feces” (Banking). Clearly when private corporations are cutting costs, they are sacrificing the safety that is so crucial in a prison setting.

Furthermore, despite the supposed high cost of incarceration given to the state, the two largest private prison corporations combined made nearly $3 billion in revenue in 2010 (Banking). This amount of money being reliant on a continued prison population is scary to think about. Although private prisons may have more incentive for cutting costs and increasing efficiency in the prison system, should the life and well-being of individuals who have been incarcerated be jeopardized in the name of cost efficiency? The lives of a very dependent part of the population are being turned into a source of revenue. In order to dramatically reduce prison costs prisons need to lower recidivism rates and consequentially the amount of people behind bars (Henrichson). The goals of rehabilitation and prevention of further crime that should be a part of our prison system are clouded by the promise of saving a few dollars. In fact, in a business model, it is actually beneficial to have high recidivism, the exact opposite of what would be good for society as a whole. Prison is one case where money may not be the answer.

 Even if the government overlooks all of these negative consequences, does prison privatization actually save taxpayers money?

Arizona recently performed an extensive survey of the costs of privatization of prisons versus state run prisons. They discovered that while privately run prisons save the state three cents per day for low-security prisoners, for medium security prisoners they actually cost up to $2,834 more per inmate annually than state run prisons. Furthermore, private prisons are very picky with the prisoners that they will take, rarely accepting ill patients or those with “limited physical capacity or stamina” (Oppel).  So even while taking only the least costly prisoners, privatization’s price efficiency is still questionable in regards to a state run prison system. Although this is only one study, it suggests that the use of prison privatization requires a second look before continuing on the trend towards privatization.

Works Cited

Oppel, Richard. “Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings.” The New York Times.

The NewYork Times, 18 May 2011. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.


Henrichson, Christian, and Ruth Delaney. “Christian Henrichson • Ruth Delaney.” The

Price of Prisons What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers. Vera Institute of Justice, 12 July

2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.


version_072512.pdf >.

“Costs.” Whitman College. Whitman College. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.

< >.

Mason, Cody. “International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization.” The Sentencing

Project. The Sentencing Project, 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.

< Growth Trends inPrison Privatization.pdf>.

“Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.” American Civil Liberties

Union. 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.



2 thoughts on “Prisons = Profit?

  1. taylorqjohnson says:

    I think it is really interesting to consider how producers can trick consumers into paying high prices for certain products because the products are supposedly being produced in a “natural” or “rare” way. It makes me wonder how often producers are able to get away with creating a fake image or story around a product just so consumers will pay ridiculously high prices. Also, I like your point about how producers are almost creating a “false supply curve” in telling consumers that the process of producing this specific type of coffee is rare.


  2. Just as there’s a cycle of poverty, there is also a cycle of prison; repeat offenders are not uncommon. This, combined with this blog post, raises the question; what are prisons’ purpose? If, as the article suggested, they are to rehabilitate law breakers, clearly they’re not doing their job, and a different system needs to be used. However, to do so would be more expensive; counselors and group therapists are much more costly than underpaid guards and bare prison cells.

    So the ‘prison question’ boils down to; what are we as a society willing to pay? In the long run, it would most likely be cheaper to do counseling, as then there would be significantly lower rates of repeat offenders to pay for and put through “the system”. Having more upstanding citizens is never a bad thing; more employed citizens increases the amount of money in the circulation, increasing demand for goods and boosting the economy. And also improves the quality of life for all the people not incarcerated and their families and friends.

    Yet this rosy, semi-idealist notion hasn’t happened yet. Possibly because it costs too much in the short-term. Or we as a society are too rooted in traditional institutions that have been in place for over 250 years. But it’s something to think about; if something makes sense in the long-term both morally and economically, then why not try at least a pilot program to see if it works, rather than remain in an expensive, broken system that resorts to private prisons which are actually more expensive?


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