Private Prison vs. Public Prison

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The United States currently has the most significant number of inmates in the world. Almost two million people throughout the country are living inside two types of prisons: private and public. 

Are you interested in knowing the difference between public and private prisons? Why are prisons categorized as public or privatized, what are the pros and cons of private prisons, and do private prisons make money? 

This article discusses the ins and outs of private and public prisons and gives you an overview of how prisons work in the United States. 

This write-up will also list the positives and negatives of private prisons from the perspective of prison rights advocates, the government, and independent studies. 

Whenever you need information about the prison system in the United States, like California and the other thousands of correctional facilities in the country, you can check our website,

Our site provides information about U.S. prison facilities, inmate records and contact information, and prison turnover rates. 

What Is the Difference Between Public and Private Prisons?

To better understand the United States prison system, you need to know the difference between private and public prisons. 

This section discusses how these two prison types differ in systems and management that may affect a prisoner’s experience and conditions.

What Is a Public Prison?

Public prisons are state-operated correctional facilities owned and run by the government and funded by taxes. 

Public prisons house 92% of inmates in the country. These facilities do not profit and are obligated to accept prisoners sent to them by the criminal justice system. 

The public prison system is the traditional way of running the penal system. However, public prisons have concerns about the increasing inmate populations in facilities alongside growing staffing issues.

What Is a Private Prison?

In contrast, private prisons are correctional facilities that are operated by a third party that has a contract with the government. Privatizing prisons came in the mid-1800s but only became popular in the 1980s. 

The preference for private prisons came when prisoner overcrowding became rampant in public correctional facilities. Many favor private prisons as they are cheaper to run than public facilities that operate on government funding. 

While working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons in housing inmates in the country, private prisons also have profit motives when running a correctional facility. 

Income from running private prisons comes mainly from the deals corporations have with the government. 

If you run a private prison, the government pays you according to the deal agreed upon by both parties. 

Pros and Cons of Private Prisons

Private prisons are slowly gaining popularity in the United States as it is one of the easiest solutions to overcrowding in public sector prisons. 

However, are private prisons all that good? Here is a list of the pros and cons of having a private prison in your area.  

Pro 1 – Privatizing Prisons Can Reduce Prison Overpopulation, Making the Facilities Safer for Inmates and Employees.

In 2020, public prisons were already operating at a maximum capacity. It became a challenge for state-run prisons to solve overcrowding problems. 

Private prisons are alternative facilities to house prisoners without spending more of the taxpayers’ money. 

During the pandemic, overcrowding became a problem as prisons had higher risks of infection.

Pro 2 – Private Prisons Can Transform the Broken Government-Run Prison System.

In countries like Australia and New Zealand, contracts with the government are performance-based. 

Companies that run these prisons get bonuses if the correctional facility works well in cutting recidivism (re-offending) and provides reduced incidences like riots, escapes, and unnatural death.

These incentives encourage private prisons to design rehabilitation areas and bring their best practices and innovation to develop their facilities better. 

Pro 3 – Private Prisons Offer Innovative Programs to Lower the Rates of Re-imprisonment.

Correctional facilities aim to reduce recidivism, which is the tendency of a convicted person to commit another crime after leaving prison. Private prisons can focus on providing different kinds of rehabilitation programs and help reduce recidivism. 

Unlike public prisons, private facilities can quickly adopt innovative ideas to help improve the success rate of reintegrating prisoners into society after they serve their sentences. 

Private prisons are run by the private sector, which has the freedom to develop rehabilitation and reentry programs for inmates.

The Problem With Private Prisons

After stating the advantages of private prisons, here are the disadvantages of allowing private prisons to operate instead of government-run prisons. 

Con 1 – Private Prisons Exploit Employees and Prisoners for Corporate Gain.

In some cases, correctional officers in private facilities are underpaid and have fewer training requirements than in government-run prisons. Therefore, private prison staff may not be prepared to do their job satisfactorily. 

 Aside from this, because private prisons are for-profit organizations, essential commodities and services given to inmates, such as food, medical care, hygiene products, and calls, can cost more. 

Families of incarcerated people may feel the burden of these additional charges, especially since prisoners who are brought to these correctional facilities have longer sentences. 

Con 2 – Privatizing Prisons Is Costly and Leaves the Most Expensive Prisoners to Public Prisons.

Some studies show that private prisons spend more per inmate. Still, most detainees housed in privatized correctional facilities are minimum to medium-security prisoners. 

These inmates are usually low-maintenance prisoners, yet they cost more in private prisons. 

High-maintenance prisoners, such as those placed in maximum security and inmates with disabilities and mental health issues, usually are not housed in private prisons. 

However, with the expensive per-prisoner cost, the reason for privatization loses its purpose. 

There are instances where private prisons charge the government for empty beds, which further increases the operating cost. 

Con 3 – All Prisons, Not Just Privately Operated Ones, Should Be Abolished.

Some people suggest the abolition of private prisons. Mainly due to the fact that if private prisons suddenly close, 92% of all inmates in the U.S. will not be affected as they are housed in public prisons. 

Moreover, for some abolitionists, a prison industrial complex does not make inmates safer from cases of murder or rape. 

These activists say that the focus should be on solving community-level issues to eliminate the need for mass incarceration.

Private Prisons in the United States

Here is the rundown of the current state of private prisons in the United States. As of 2020, there are 99,754 individuals incarcerated in private prisons, which represents 8% of the total population of prisoners housed in federal and state prisons

Twenty-six states used private prison companies to help manage prison operations. However, some states do not have private prisons. 

Some corporations that helped run private prisons are Core Civic, LaSalle Corrections, and GEO Group. 

Are Most Prisons Public or Private?

In 2019, the number of public confinement facilities was 1,079, which are run by either state or federal governments, while only 82 facilities are private prisons.

To further break down the types of prisons, there are 376 maximum security prisons, 451 medium-security prisons, and 287 minimum-security prisons

The statistics also show that the state runs 82% of all public prisons, and 11% are federal prisons. 

When you look at the prison statistics, you can see that there are more public prisons in the United States than private prisons. 

How Many Private Prisons Are in the U.S.?

There are currently 158 private prisons in the United States, which house 8% of the entire incarcerated population in the country. Other countries with private prisons are Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. 

According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization, 121,718 people were imprisoned in 2017. 

Furthermore, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the states that have the highest population of inmates in private prisons are the following states.

How a Private Prison Makes Money

Prison privatization aims not only to provide rehabilitation and help reduce recidivism rates in the country but also to make a profit. 

Private firms have contracts with the U.S. government to run prisons. These companies are usually paid either monthly or annually based on the number of inmates they house. 

A private prison naturally uses processes that save money and increase the rate of profit because it is still a business. 

The Business Model of Private Prisons

Private prisons are businesses that address the rising number of incarcerations in the country. Private firms running these prisons have a business model to ensure their investment results in profit. 

Key Takeaways

Here are some takeaways on the private prison business model.  

  • The criminal justice system in the United States uses private prisons as a solution to the growing population of prisoners that need to be housed in the country. 
  • Private companies establish a contract with the government to manage private correctional facilities. Structures in private prisons are also privately-owned. 
  • Critics of prison privatization argue that for-profit motives can cause corruption and unjust treatment and conditions inside private prisons. 

Why Would a Private Prison Need to Be Publicly Traded?

Corporations that have a contract with the government are the ones who own private prisons.

However, because they are still part of the justice system, a portion of them must be open to the public. These facilities must also be transparent about using taxpayers’ money in their private business. 

Furthermore, private prisons must have a steady supply of inmates to remain profitable. 

They require continuous communication with the government, renewed contracts, and enforced laws that will ensure inmates continue to populate these prisons. 

Should Prisons Be Privatized?

Sentiments on both sides discussing whether prison privatization is needed or not are growing. People who want private prisons argue that these facilities help reduce overpopulation, thus making prisons safer for both correctional staff and inmates. 

Moreover, according to these individuals, private prisons help transform the government prison system and lower the rates of people getting imprisoned again. 

On the other hand, critics see private prisons as corporations obtaining money from the government, resulting in the public’s suffering. 

Another problem pointed out by people against private prisons is the percentage of people held in local jails or detention facilities, such as in Texas and Louisiana, is unknown.  

Private Prisons vs. Public Prisons and Its Application in Networks

Most of the time, private prisons face controversies because of their for-profit goals.

One small percentage of the entire prison population in the United States is housed in private prisons. The prison industry uses private facilities to cater to the growing number of incarcerations. Still, for some, it is an expense that is not essential. 

Are Private Prisons More Effective Than Public Prisons?

There are various reasons why some individuals say that private prisons are more effective than public prisons. 

However, according to research, private prisons have no more cost-effective advantage than public correctional facilities.

Why Private Prisons Are Better

Though studies may show that private prisons are not more effective than public prisons, there are areas where a privatized correctional facility is better.

First is that private prisons have the power to determine how many inmates are housed in their facilities, preventing overcrowding.  

Second is that private prisons give people jobs in areas where unemployment is high.

Third is that decisions to change policies are faster in private prisons than in public ones. You can easily change a private prison’s policy to improve the condition of one or more inmates. 

Prisons and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Why Are People Talking About It?

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, the prison system was also the target of rapid infection rates due to overcrowding. 

Lawmakers thus advocated the release of prisoners to reduce the incarcerated population and slow the spread of the virus. But, if you look back into prison statistics, you will see that there were fewer releases throughout the height of the pandemic.

History of Private Prisons

In the early 1980s, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) started the resurgence of private prisons in the United States. 

This company was headed by Thomas Beasley, T. Don Hutto, and Dr. R. Grants, and they decided to run a prison for profit, which at that time was still rare. 

The trend to privatize prisons started in 1984 when counties in Florida entered into contracts with the private sector to cater to their incarceration needs. 

During President Reagan’s war on drugs, the number of imprisonments increased. The sudden influx of inmates was the reason for the government to turn to private prisons to help with the increasing prisoner numbers. 

During the Obama administration, the Justice Department reviewed private prisons. The department concluded that private prisons were more dangerous and less effective in reforming inmates than public facilities. 

Meanwhile, during the Trump administration, the review was reversed, and private prisons helped in the growing immigration and drug problems.

However, current President Joe Biden released an executive order concerning the reformation of the country’s incarceration system. 

The order focused on eliminating the use of private criminal detention centers by ordering the attorney general to stop renewing contracts with private detention facilities.

The Debate

The ongoing debate on whether private prisons should still be used is of genuine concern for many. Many individuals look to privatization because of the perception that public prisons are not being appropriately handled. 

One reason for this perception is the incidences of prison disturbances in areas like New York

However, on the other hand, cases of corruption are the main point of argument that causes dislike towards private prisons. 

There are also cases like the “kids for cash” scandal in 2009, where a judge in Pennsylvania is said to have received money from private prisons in exchange for sentencing kids and placing them in private prisons for the prison owner’s profit. 

Cutting Costs or Quality?

Another issue raised by private prisons is their spending management. Some say private prisons can do cost-saving or cost-cutting practices to save significantly.

However, labor groups argue that cost-cutting only results in lower-quality staff, poorly trained guards, and an increased risk of prisoner escapes, violence, and mistreatment. 

In conclusion, the cost efficiencies of private prisons are inconclusive. There is no direct evidence pointing out that privatized correctional facilities are more or less expensive than public or government-run prisons. 

The debate is ongoing, and time will tell if private prisons will be the step forward in improving the correctional system of the U.S. or not. 


  1. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022
  2. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2019 – Statistical Tables
  3. Private and Public Sector Prisons—A Comparison of Select Characteristics
  4. Executive Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities
  5. Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons


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