Fact Checked

What is a Private Prison?

Leonardo Von Navorski
Leonardo Von Navorski

A private prison is a detention center that is managed by a private enterprise, also called a for-profit enterprise. Most prisons are public prisons. A private prison differs from a public prison because a private prison is not operated by the government. Instead, the government pays a private enterprise to run the prison.

The earliest known form of prison privatization in the United States took place after the Civil War, although that particular system shared little with the modern private prison. The system was known as convict leasing. Essentially, private enterprises, such as farms or businesses, rented prisoners from federal and state governments. The prisoners would then provide labor for the private enterprises as if they were employees.

The longer an inmate stays in jail, the more money a private prison can make.
The longer an inmate stays in jail, the more money a private prison can make.

The topic of private prisons is a controversial one. Opponents of prison privatization argue that for-profit companies should not be in charge of inmates because they'll have a higher probability of being mistreated and abused. Additionally, opponents of private prisons argue that by privatizing prisons, companies are essentially making money when citizens go to jail. The longer they stay in jail, the more money the enterprise will make. Therefore, opponents say, the private prison industry will contribute to lobbying for harsher sentencing in order to serve their financial interests.

Proponents of the private prison industry argue that governments waste money on inefficient jails and detention centers and that the system should be left up to private enterprise. A private enterprise, it is argued, will have incentive to be more efficient in order to make more money. This also can create jobs and result in economic growth. This efficiency can benefit the government, and therefore the citizens, because less government money is spent to keep a certain number of prisoners incarcerated.

The number of prisons that are private represents a small minority. For example, as of 2010, there were approximately 2 million prisoners in the U.S., including those in state penitentiaries, local jails and federal prisons, but only about 100,000 of those were in private prisons. There were fewer than 300 private prisons in the U.S. as of 2010.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- you do raise some legitimate concerns but they can be dealt with well enough. It is true that states determine their own criminal laws and sentencing guidelines, but most states have adopted the Model Penal Code. That was put together in the 1960s by the American Law Institute and it has gone a long way toward standardizing criminal laws in the various states. The objectives behind the Model Penal Code were largely achieved, so it can be revised again if the goal is to cut down on the number of people in prisons.

Also, the federal government has a lot of oversight over state prisons. That oversight, one assumes, extends to private prisons accepting prisoners. That is especially true if those private prisons accept federal prisoners as well as state ones -- when the federal government is involved, you'd better believe there will be guidelines and oversight.


@Logicfest -- perhaps the United States should look at reforming criminal codes across the nation so that people aren't tossed in prison for so long and the number of offenses that come with jail time are reduced? That would be an incredibly efficient way to deal with the high cost of maintaining prisons.

There's a problem with that strategy. While federal criminal laws are unified, state ones are not. The federal government could take steps to modify federal criminal sentencing guidelines, but there's not just a whole lot the states could do.

Another problem is when it comes to monitoring. The federal government could oversee private prisons accepting federal prisoners, but that job shifts to the individual states when it comes to private facilities housing their prisoners.


It's a concept well worth exploring because keeping people in prison is incredibly expensive. If a private enterprise can do it more efficiently, then let them have at it. If there is a way to deal with the ever expanding prison population and save taxpayers some money, then why not give private prisons a shot?

Of course, the government will have to monitor those to make sure prisoners aren't being mistreated. For example, it might be efficient to cut the diet of prisoner's to the bone so that they only get the least expensive essentials, but that's not very humane.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • The longer an inmate stays in jail, the more money a private prison can make.
      By: andreykr
      The longer an inmate stays in jail, the more money a private prison can make.