If you look at the 10 states in the US that rely the most on private prisons, they incarcerate a percentage of their population in privately-owned facilities roughly equivalent to what Europe does in all their facilities.
Let’s back up because we are going to need a couple of graphs to get there. For those that don’t know, the United States incarcerates a lot of people, a recent phenomenon that places us well above any other nation. Let’s reproduce a plot of the United States against other countries, along with their economic freedom index, and show the change over time:
(Data links.) I like this graph because it shows that the two major shifts in our country’s disciplinary strategies towards its citizens over past thirty years are linked. In one direction we move to a climate that emphasizes the freedom, liberty and agency for those that own businesses and capital while simultaneously waging an aggressive campaign to penalize and criminalize poverty. The government agenda to make a business friendly environment links with an aggressive use of police powers on the issue of social problems. Our current rate of incarceration is 743 per 100,000.
With this sudden explosion of the scope of prisons, it isn’t surprising that private firms want to get in on the game, lobbying to expand their business and profit margins while also fighting efforts to apply some common sense railings to our out-of-control sentencing practices. Luckily, the Justice Policy Institute has a new report out, Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies (summary).
Adam Serwer, Andrea Nill Sanchez at Think Progress and Ryan J Reilly of TPM all have interesting analyses of the report, which is fantastic. The report demonstrates how corporate donors, aggressive lobbying efforts, cozy relationships and specific institution-building, especially with right-wing think tanks, all have contributed to the huge expansion of the prison industry and also, crucially, delayed efforts at reform, even with movement conservatives ranging from Grover Norquist to Mitch Daniels all pushing to rework the system.
As for rates, the report puts 8% of
private all prisoners as residing in a private facility. That prison rate alone is 42 per 100,000. Now that is for prison, not jail, where the information is harder to come by. It also isn’t for youth facilities, though the paper found “privately owned corporations operate more than 50 percent of youth correctional facilities in the United States,” a rate so high I didn’t even recognize it.
But I wasn’t sure how private prisons worked in the United States. Were they used just a bit, to handle the overflow of human beings under the disciplinary control of the state, like an emergency storage tank? Or were they deeply wedded to the way incarceration works in states? Were they used everywhere, or just in a few places?
This map, from the report, helps explain how they are only used in about half the country, and in many of those places they have a deep presence:
I took the DoJ data (Appendix Table 20) they pulled for this map and broke it down by percent of prisoners by states. 25 states have zero or less than 1% of prisoners in private facilities, while the top 10 states have an average 29% of their prisoners in private facilities.
Two things jump out. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground – once a state flips to using private contractors, they use them a lot (I need to dig further into how quickly this accelerates once it turns). Some states prohibit prisoners being under the control of private facilities. If that flips, I wonder how quickly they go from 0% to seriously deep market penetrations like 29%+.
The second is that the lobbying pressures in many of these states must be quite serious. When you read about how Arizona’s private prisons are trying to lobby the Arizona immigration bill, you need to keep in mind that Arizona has almost a quarter of their prisoners in private facilities. They must have tremendous sway in how the state’s responsibility to imprison convicts plays out.
For fun, I grabbed the state population from the Census of the top ten private prison contracting states (New Mexico, Montana, Alaska, Vermont, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona and Tennessee), took their total prisoners in private facilities and divided by total state population. The result was that together, they have a private prison incarceration rate of 133 per 100,000.
To put that in context, the average total incarceration rate for Europe is 143 per 100,000. If you exclude Eastern Europe (which is to say, if you take out the Ukraine), the average is 110! (Data here and here.) Most countries we’d like to be able to compare ourselves to are even less. Let’s chart this out:
So for the top ten private prison contracting states in the United States, there is a percent of the population under the carceral control of private firms – firms with a mix of shareholders, bondholders, CEOs, boards, marketing departments, etc. to pay and their private, profit-maximizing and cost-reducing ideas to entertain – roughly equivalent to the total percentage of incarcerated people in Europe. How cool is that?
We discuss this report and privatizing parole in the next entry.