Policy Study

Private Prisons

Quality Corrections at a Lower Cost

Executive Summary

Why are U.S. federal agencies and state and local governments turning to the private sector for correctional services? Because tougher crime policies and budget constraints have combined to create a problem, if not a crisis, in the nation’s prisons and jails. Governments are incarcerating more criminals, but they have recently become unwilling to spend sufficient tax dollars for new prisons to house them. The prison system is increasingly characterized by overcrowding, lawsuits, and court orders.

With taxpayers clearly demanding that criminals be put in prison and kept in longer, there seems to be no choice but to increase the capacity of the prison system. But with popular pressure to cut government spending, funding the increase will be difficult. Legislators face a lot of pressure to hold the line on corrections spending, and fewer than half of all referendums to approve bond financing of new prisons are being approved by voters.

This has led federal, state, and local officials to consider how the private sector can become involved in corrections to lower costs while maintaining or even improving the quality of services and help cope with the growing number of prisoners without busting the budget. This study surveys the evidence on what private prisons have to offer and the evidence on how they have performed.

Extent of Private Prisons: Contracting with private prisons is widely practiced-there are over 120 private facilities in 27 states, and around 120,000 inmates in their keeping. Private firms operate several maximum security facilities and dozens of medium security ones.

Cost Savings: Private prisons save money-10 to 15 percent average savings on operations costs, based on fourteen independent cost comparison studies. Other evidence of cost savings is examined as well. Cost savings are achieved through innovation and efficient management practices.

Quality Services: Private prisons provide at least the same quality services that government prisons do-based on six independent quality comparison studies, rates of American Correctional Association accreditation, recidivism comparison studies, contract terminations, and prisoner and correctional officer lawsuits.

The evidence is overwhelming that the private sector delivers quality correctional services at lower cost to the benefit of taxpayers. Moreover, public official’s experiences with contracting for correctional services, through contract terms, legislation, and best practices, has resolved many of the thorny questions that come up when privatizing corrections is suggested. This study examines the answers to such questions as: Can private correctional officers use deadly force?, Can they manage riots?, How can we be sure private prisons do not violate prisoners’ rights?, Do private correctional officers receive lower-quality training than government correctional officers?, Have private prisons been “skimming the cream”-taking only low-security and lessexpensive inmates?, and many others.