The private prison industry in the United States is massive and growing. Since 1970, the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. has increased by 700, to the point that the U.S. prison population is the largest in the world both per capita and in total numbers. As of 2018, there are an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars and 4.5 million people on probation or parole. The estimated cost of the U.S. mass incarceration system is $182 billion a year, and hundreds of private companies compete over contracts for some of this money. This has led to an increased privatization of nearly every aspect of the prison industry.
The most visible and publicly debated corporate involvement in the prison industry is through private prisons, which are owned, managed, and operated by private for-profit companies instead of by government agencies. As of 2016, an estimated 8.5 percent of people in federal and state prisons are incarcerated in private prisons, and nearly three-quarters of all people in immigration detention are held in privately-run facilities. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people incarcerated in private prisons has increased by 47 percent. The two companies that dominate this market in the U.S. are The Geo Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. We focus on private prisons in our Incarceration and Detention Facilities section.
However, private prison facilities are just the tip of the iceberg for prison profiteering. Whether public or private, all prisons, jails, and detention centers have to purchase goods and services for their operations. Incarcerated people must be fed and clothed, transported from place to place, and provided their medical and mental health needs. Prisons must provide incarcerated people with ways to communicate with their loved ones. Incarcerated people must also have access to money while incarcerated. All of these services have gradually been privatized, and they open avenues for companies to profit from the prison industry. When a company receives such a contract from a prison or detention center, it is provided a literally captive market for its products or services. We cover these and more in our Services in Facilities section.
There are also profit opportunities outside of brick-and-mortar prisons. As the prison building boom is winding down due to various sentencing reform policies, private prison companies have pivoted from a focus on prison operations to providing “community corrections” programs like electronic monitoring, re-entry services, and operating day reporting centers for people on probation and parole. When contracted by the government, these corporations can charge the people they are monitoring for supervision fees, monitoring equipment, drug testing, counseling, and more. While the profit generated from each person under supervision is lower compared to an incarcerated person, there are more people supervised compared to incarcerated, and the length of time a person is under supervision is on average longer than incarceration. This growing industry is covered in our Supervision and Monitoring section.
While privatization is not the root cause of mass incarceration, the profit motive inherent in the private prison industry has impacts for the entire system. The two largest private prison corporations, CoreCivic and GEO Group, spend substantial money on lobbying and campaign contributions to secure contracts and promote legislation that results in higher rates of incarceration and immigrant detention. Higher recidivism rates and longer periods of probation and parole are also in the best financial interest of these companies. As long as incarceration and other punishments are profitable, any effort to reduce the scope and impact of the criminal punishment system and end mass incarceration is likely to be undermined.
Our mapping of the private prison industry documents corporate involvement in the various aspects of the prison industry. The industry is comprised of hundreds of companies, many of which are small and privately-owned, and relatively few large, publicly-traded companies. Our database highlights and profiles the main publicly-traded companies in the industry. In addition, we hope to contribute to the larger movement to end mass incarceration by providing information on all profiteers, including the ones that are privately-owned.