Private prisons are a 5 billion dollar a year industry that operates facilities all over the country to house inmates who are sentenced to prison in our courts. They emerged in the 1980s, when the number of inmates was quickly outstripping capacity, leading to what the courts found were unconstitutional conditions of overcrowding. Private prison companies stepped in with a business model in which they built a prison and secured a contract from the state to house these overflow inmates. These companies are paid per inmate on a daily basis, like a hotel.

Today, private prisons incarcerate about 9 percent of all U.S. prisoners, and 19 percent of all federal prisoners. About 75 percent of all immigrants detained by ICE are also in private prisons. Just two companies dominate the industry: CoreCivic has 42 percent of the market and GEO Group 37 percent. GEO Group and CoreCivic, which are publicly traded, had revenues last year of $2.3 billion and $1.8 billion respectively. George Zoley, chief executive of GEO Group, made $9.6 million in 2017, according to S.E.C. filings. Damon T. Hininger, CoreCivic’s chief executive, earned $2.3 million.

To secure these state contracts, the companies employ a variety of strategies, including hiring former corrections officials in high-level positions. Two of the past four directors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons were later hired by CoreCivic.

Much of the industry’s power is linked to campaign donations to the same state legislators who award them contracts. GEO Group and CoreCivic have given nearly $9 million over the past few years to state candidates and parties across the United States, with the overwhelming majority to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. GEO Group alone gave more than $1 million to state candidates and parties in Florida in the two years leading up to the vote in 2016. GEO Group and CoreCivic gave close to half a million dollars to Mr. Trump’s inauguration. After he was elected, their stock prices soared. The two companies have also spent between $3 million and $4 million annually on lobbying, according to data from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

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Private prisons are extremely violent. They save money by hiring fewer guards, and giving them less training. The result is less control of the inmates and more violence. A 2016 report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that federally contracted private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults. In an attempt to regain control, private facilities threw more inmates in solitary and used prison-wide lockdowns more frequently. A private prison in Mississippi was closed in 2016, four years after a federal judge wrote that the prison “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world,” and placed the prison under federal oversight.

Private prisons warp justice, because the company’s responsibility is to its shareholders, not the public. For-profit institutions have no incentive to rehabilitate their prisoners, but every incentive to keep recidivism rates high so they can get future contracts. The more people imprisoned, the higher the profits. They provide fewer educational, drug addiction, vocational and enrichment services to inmates, giving inmates less chance of adjusting on the outside and enhance their chance of returning.


Ed Rucker is one of the most successful and celebrated defense attorneys of his generation, and the author of the Bobby Earl series of legal thrillers. The new Bobby Earl novel, Justice Makes a Killing, will be published on July 1, 2019, by Chickadee Prince Books. It is currently available for pre-order in paperback at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and your favorite local bookstore.

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