Racial Disparity in Private Prisons

Even within the criminal justice system where policies are supposed to be fair and where no one is above the law, racial disparities are still prevalent.

A study by researcher Christopher Petrella from the University of California-Berkeley reveals that there is a greater percentage of people of color in private prisons than public prisons.


In order to remain cost-effective, private prisons contracts allow prisons to avoid housing inmates that require expensive medical treatment (who are often older), thus meaning that they will target prisoners who are younger and healthier.

As seen in the graph below, private prisons have lower rates of inmates above age 50 (and often white) compared to public prisons.




The difference in terms of race and age stems from the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted communities of color by implementing strict sentencing policies e.g. three-strikes law and mandatory minimum sentencing.

“In many ways, the so called ‘War on Drugs’ was a war on communities of color, a war on black communities, a war on Latino communities.” – Angela Davis

“You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968, you can’t say nigger, that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, state’s rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now. You’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” – Lee Atwater, campaign strategist for Ronald Reagan

In addition to the racial climate of America after the civil rights movement, the profit motive of private prisons and corporations also exacerbates the racial disparity. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an organization where corporate members like State Farm Insurance, Koch Industries, and PhRMA propose laws to politicians and vote alongside legislators for bills and laws. After this, lawmakers introduce the laws to their state. This means that corporations have a huge influence on state legislations, one of them being Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the first private prison corporation. The CCA introduced  series of bills like the three-strikes law and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have allowed for private prisons to be continuously supplied with inmates to ensure profit, which goes to ALEC’s shareholders. For instance, the War on Drugs,  proposed by CCA and supported by ALEC, led to younger, healthier inmates, who disproportionately constitutes people of color.

Ultimately, Petrella says his results “shed light on the ways in which ostensibly colorblind policies and attitudes can actually have very racially explicit outcomes. Racial discrimination cannot exist legally, yet still manifests itself.”


Racial Disparity




Are “colorblind” prison policies really colorblind? Not only do private prisons have a larger proportion of people of colour, they also have a lower proportion of people above the age of 50. Check out the website above to find out more.

Prison: Last Week Tonight

In this video, John Oliver talks about the prison system and situation in America. He mentions about healthcare in private prisons (starts 8:24) and highlights several problems and consequences of privatising prisons (e.g. safety of inmates).

“The key problem with running prisons as businesses, is that prisons, are then run as businesses.”

“Private prisons are bad yes, but the whole system just seems fundamentally broken.”

Are we Really Saving Money?

According to a report by the Independent Institute by Blackstone and Hakim, states have been underestimating cost savings of private prisons.

For state-run prisons, important avoidable costs are not included in cost calculations and it is ambiguous whether short or long-run costs are considered. Often, avoidable state prison costs are delegated to other departments of the state government, which are not included in the state’s calculation of cost per inmate per day. Thus, these cost omissions are not adjusted for and deflate costs for state prisons.

However, the same can be said for private prisons.

According to a journal by Alex Friedmann published in Prison Legal News and the Fordham Urban Law Journal, cost-shifting factors (e.g. differences in prisoner populations, security levels, medical expenses, transportation costs and administrative overhead) inflates the expenses paid by the public contracting agency, while deflating the expenses of private prisons.

The article pulls out several examples highlighting the need to adjust for these cost-shifting factors, mainly emphasising that the non-adjusted rate of private prisons indicated cost savings while the adjusted rate instead indicated a net loss. The article also states how the cost of private facilities in Hawaii in 2007 and 2009 increased by 14.9% and 19.4% respectively, after adjusting for cost-shifting factors. The article quotes from the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy 2010 report, stating that

“[t]here is no compelling evidence that the privatisation of prisons has actually resulted in savings…. It is very difficult to ensure that a private prison is in fact 7% less costly to operate than a comparable public prison.”

Furthermore, Blackstone and Hakim’s report states that private prisons lower costs and improve quality by introducing more competition into the industry. However, according to The Hamilton Project, the extent of the competition is not substantial due to the small number of firms in the business. Compared to the year 1999 where there were 12 for-profit prison firms, since then, eight have been acquired and only two new firms have opened.

They calculated that the “two largest private prison companies account for around 55 and 30 percent of all private prison beds, respectively, and the 3 largest firms provide over 96 percent of the total number of private prison beds.”

Due to the complexity of the industry and difficulty in calculating accurate costs that take into account cost-shifting factors, how are we to know if private prisons are actually cost effective? With many of research articles and yet no clear answer, Friedmann suggests that we may be asking the wrong question. Instead, he invites us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture:

“Should we incarcerate people in private, for-profit prisons even if they do save money?”


IMG_1080Hi everyone, my name is Jialin, but I go by Faith 🙂 I am an communications exchange student from Singapore and a sophomore at the University of Maryland.

I became interested in mass incarceration when I saw the trailer for 13th, a Netflix documentary that sheds light on mass incarceration and race and when I visited Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It is shocking to learn that this is the system the US has fiercely adopted in dealing with criminals (in contrast to other countries that focus on deterrence or rehabilitation). What is worse is that the private prison industry is making profit off of incarceration.

I hope that through this blog, people will begin to question the basis of mass incarceration and private prisons, which is especially relevant now that Trump’s new administration supports the use of private prisons.