Why Private Prisons Are Damaging to the Correctional System


By Jason Whitehead, InPublic Safety


What would the criminal justice system be like if it was privatized? Could you imagine if, for every arrest an officer made, they got paid? Or if, for every conviction a judge or district attorney won, they received some sort of commission? Under privatization, our justice system would become an “arrest-everyone” and “convict them all” environment driven by the incentive to get paid!

This sounds absurd and highly problematic–so why does privatization exist within the corrections system? According to a 2018 report, the U.S. has the world’s largest private prison population, housing 8.5 percent (128,063 inmates) of the total 1.5 million people housed in state and federal prisons nationwide.

These private prisons, which are publicly traded on the stock exchange, are making money based on how many inmates they house. The government pays them a stipend, most often based on the number of prisoners they house. These companies need inmates to be in operation, essentially making incarcerated people a required commodity for financial gain.

Let me clarify a few things: I am a correctional officer for New York State and have never worked in a private prison. I am paid to work in a publicly owned prison, but my salary is not based or dependent on how many inmates we have in our custody. State prisons are not in the business of making money off inmates.

I am obviously not a big supporter of private prisons, but I do view prisons—and the corrections system as a whole—to be necessary. Prisons exist to rehabilitate low-level offenders and keep convicted murderers and rapists away from the rest of society. That being said, I have a strong moral and ethical conviction against using inmates, even the worst of the worst, as a way to make money.

Private Prisons Have Little Incentive to Rehabilitate Inmates

Our justice system often requires convicted offenders to pay restitution by spending time in a correctional facility. However, the mission of correctional institutions should be to reform and prepare inmates to re-enter society, not just house them while they serve their sentences. I’m not naïve; I have worked in corrections for 14 years and I know how difficult it is to actually reform inmates, but it should always remain the ultimate objective of our correctional system.

Counter to this objective, private prisons do not have incentives to reform or rehabilitate inmates. The longer an inmate stays in a private facility, or the more times they re-offend and return, the more private institutions make off them.

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