Criminal Justice

Should the government use private prisons?

The past few years have seen conflicting opinions emerge about whether to replace public prisons with privatized ones

Rise of the Issue

Privatized prisons were first introduced to relieve some of the pressure on government-run facilities and lead to more efficiency and lower costs for taxpayers. Recently, the for-profit prison system has come under increased scrutiny, with opponents questioning whether privatized prisons have actually come through on those promises.

Several states, such as California, have implemented laws to stop new contracts with for-profit prisons and prevent renewal in the future. However, the court has ruled this cannot apply to federal facilities. The Obama administration tried to phase out privatized prisons, only to have the decision reversed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the Trump administration. Sessions argued the US prison system needed the flexibility privatized facilities could provide. President Biden signed an executive order in 2021 to stop new contracts with private detention facilities, but for-profit prison organizations have already started to find loopholes.

Issue Timeline


War on Drugs Leads to Overcrowded Prisons

President Reagan’s policies lead to more and more people being incarcerated, increasing the pressure on the public prison system.


Government Awards First Private Prison Contract

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) takes over a facility in Hamilton Country, Tennessee, making it the first private company to take on the complete operation of a prison.


Justice Department Stops Working with Private Prisons

The Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the quality and safety of prisons was not as high as those run by the Bureau of Prisons and that the costs were not substantially lower, so they decided not to renew contracts with private prisons.


DOJ Reverses Phasing Out of Private Prisons

Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Obama administration’s memorandum to stop renewing contracts with private prisons “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system” and retracts it.


Federal Government Stops Contracts with Private Prisons

President Biden signs an executive order telling the DOJ to phase out their contracts with privatized prisons to stop the federal government from relying on private operators.

Micro Issues


Running Costs

Supporters of privatized prisons say that private prisons have an incentive to be cost-efficient because they need to stay competitive, while opponents cite reports that question whether private prisons actually cost less than public prisons.



More contraband is found in privatized prisons than their public counterparts. The two sides disagree on whether that is because it is easier for inmates to get contraband into private prisons or because private prisons are better at finding, seizing and recording contraband than public ones


Mass Incarceration

The two sides have opposing views on whether the privatization of prisons is a driving factor or a consequence of the significant increase in prison population since the 1980s.

Pro Arguments


Privatizing prisons could make them more cost effective.

Private companies have a focus on making profit, which encourages them to keep costs down and cost taxpayers less money.


Private prisons could be more efficient than government-run prisons.

Competing for government contracts gives private prisons a reason to work as efficiently as possible so they can stay competitive.


Private prisons could take the pressure off government-run prisons.

Many prisons across the country are overcrowded, operating at above 100% capacity. Privatized prisons can help relieve some of that overcrowding by taking on inmates from overcrowded prisons.


Privatized prisons could increase prisons’ safety.

By increasing the number of prisons in the country, it reduces prison overpopulation, i.e. one of the factors that puts both inmates’ and staff members’ security at risk.


For-profit prisons can economically benefit the local community.

Having a private prison in a jurisdiction often leads to additional tax revenues and job creation for locals.

Con Arguments


For-profit prisons benefit from higher incarceration rates.

The more people are imprisoned and the longer they are incarcerated, the more money privatized prisons make.


Private prisons might have less (well-trained) staff.

Hiring less or less experienced staff is cheaper and thus more attractive to a business that is focused on making profit. This leads to more dangerous conditions for inmates, because staff are not as well equipped to deal with incidents. Understaffing medical personnel can also lead to a lack of adequate healthcare.


Rehabilitating offenders is not the main goal of for-profit prisons.

One of the aims of incarceration is to rehabilitate those convicted and help them become better members of society. This can be done through training and rehabilitation programs, but these cost money. Eliminating or reducing those leads to more profit for the privatized facilities.


Private prisons can decide which inmates they do (not) want to house.

Contracts with governments can include clauses that specific inmates such as the most dangerous ones, those with health issues and the elderly – which cost more to house – are not sent to privatized prisons, leaving the most costly and/or difficult inmates in public facilities.


For-profit prisons can put a higher price on basic necessities.

Inmates that need additional supplies such as soap and toothpaste or want to communicate with the outside world via phone or email are charged substantially higher rates in privatized prisons.