Posts tagged Bureau of Justice Assistance

Privatization of Prisons and Public Administration Implications

Barbed tape at a prison

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I. Introduction

            Private Prisons have existed on U.S. soil well before the Constitution was drafted.  Dating back to 1607, Virginia convicts were transported by private entrepreneurs across the Atlantic as a condition to be pardoned if they agreed to be sold into servitude to private enterprise.  Later in the 18th century, modern prisons were formed as an alternative to the death penalty and servitude. During the early years of the United States, privately operated jails were commonly utilized.  Privatized correctional institutions such as these trace their roots back to medieval England.  Over centuries of corruption the public’s attitude would change towards mixing the words private and prison together.  Then much later in modern times, in the second half of the 20th Century, the private industry and prisons began to mix again to the modern age with more and more prisons falling to privatization1.

Privatization occurs when the government outsources its responsibilities and services to the private sector.  In recent years, presidential administrations such as the George W. Bush Administration have tried to increase the amount of privatization that occurs at the federal level.  Services such as waste management, public education, and even prison and jail services, are starting to become increasingly privatized.  Over the past decade and into the heat of the current economic recession, the concept of the government privatizing more services has been a widely supported idea.  A major contributing factor for the strong support of privatization is the widespread public perception that the government typically spends more money than is necessary to carry out services than do private industry businesses.

Generally, private businesses carrying out a government task are more likely to exercise more fiscal restraint into their budgets and not overspend to max out profits as well as improve services to get more business.  Some proponents of privatized prisons claim that private correctional facilities can save up to 20 percent of the cost to run normal public prisons; yet, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a study and found out private prisons generate very little savings, estimated at just one percent, of the cost when compared to public prisons.2

It is believed that through privatization, the government not only can save money but also may improve the quality of the services through privatization.  While this general conception is true for most industries in which services are performed by private businesses, privatized correctional facilities have come under increasing scrutiny. A myriad of studies and reports have indicated that privatized prisons and jails have an increase in all assaults: inmate-to-inmate, guard-to-inmate, and inmate-to-guard.  In addition, studies also indicate the health of private prisoners versus government prisoners is significantly worse.

While some states hardly rely on privatized prisons to hold their inmates, others such as Texas house nearly a quarter of their inmates in privatized prisons.  The Bureau of Justice Assistance reports that the number of privatized prisons are likely to increase in the U.S. due to the growing rate of individuals incarcerated.3 Just how big of an increase is to be expected? The U.S. jail and prison population was around 750,000 in 1985. In 1997, it was an estimated 1.7 million and growing.4

II. Literature Review of Public Administration Concepts

            Brian Gran and William Henry recently published an article in Social Justice that focuses on holding privatized prisons accountable.  According to Gran and Henry, one major problem that privatized prisons face is that they experience significant turnover among staff members, which prevents the staff members from gaining requisite experience and prison-specific knowledge and skills that public prison employees carry.5

Gran and Henry focus on whose responsibility it is when assaults occur in prison.  In general, it is the government’s fault for assaults in the public sector, but when it is in the private sector the business is at fault.6 The government is conducted in a way that is much easier to reform, such as hiring/firing new government officials and changing the bureaucratic atmosphere.  Businesses, on the other hand, are much harder to reform.  While the public and government can sue privatized prisons (such as for assaults and escapes) but suing the private prisons is not an effective way for helping them increase security measures.  Privatized prisons are “profit-maximizers” with a strong incentive to make as much money as possible.7  Private prisons generally cut down on the amount of money that is spent by the government on security measures to prevent assaults. For example, when a private prison is successfully sued for a million dollars, that money comes directly out of their funds that they might otherwise use to provide inmate safety and other measures – which could very well lead to increasing assault incidents in the future.

Funds are considered when drafting up budgets.  Budgets in the private correctional institutions sector come from two sources: the government and private investors.  The government is a steady source for funds, generally each fiscal year public agencies have to submit and draft budgets.  Although funding can vary each year, it is considerably steady in comparison to the stock market, where some privatized prisons gain significant portions of their funds.  The following example demonstrates the potential vulnerability of investor funding of privatized prisons.  Suppose that the stock price of a large privatized prison corporation such as Corrections Corporation of America suffers a sudden and dramatic decline of 50 percent of its value due to speculators’ concerns over a pending lawsuit.  Company-owned stock that would be used to help fund Corrections Corporation of America would be thwarted or at least adversely impacted.  Private investor attitudes do not impact the budgets of government-operated prisons.

Gran and Henry’s article further discusses the contracts that privatized prisons must abide by.  The contracts try to set the standards of private prisons to the same level as public prisons, through giving specifications about maintenance, formation, and liability. For example, in a contract the government has with the Correctional Corporation of America’s Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, the government stated that the prison must maintain a system of records identical to the Bureau of Prisons.8 It is through contracts such as these, that the U.S. Government and pro-privatization proponents use to argue that privatized prisons are just as effective as public prisons.  However, based on other readings, that is only a theory.  In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice found a 50 percent higher rate of assaults by inmates on staff, and a 65 percent higher inmate-on-inmate assaults in private prisons when compared to public prisons, based on self-reported data figures from the prisons throughout the U.S.9

A Bureau of Justice Assistance study entitled Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons documented the reasons for both in favor and against the government privatizing prisons, with the issue of safety among them.  One of the surveys in this study indicated that privatized prisons functioned as well as public prisons with the exception of three crucial categories: (1) staffing levels; (2) management information system support; (3) critical incidents (i.e. assaults on staff).10 Another study cited in the document was the “Silverdale Study.”  The Silverdale study was a 1988 survey conducted at Silverdale Detention Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Inmates were asked to rate the prison on various aspects, and to compare the Silverdale facility to other prisons that they had served time at.  The inmates marked the facility highly on most issues such as: physical improvements, cleanliness, staff fairness, work assignments, request and grievance procedures, counseling, religious services, visitation and telephone privileges.  However, the inmates put negative marks on: security, classification, medical care, food, education, and legal access when compared to other (public) prisons.11

III. Case Analysis

            In 1995, a juvenile center found its self-making headlines.  The Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, a Wackenhut/Geo Group privatized institution, was under fire when male guards were found to have sexually, physically and mentally abused the female inmates.  It was found that some of the guards, including a man who had a prior conviction for sexual abuse of a child, were manipulating a “demotion/graduation” system by making the young adolescent girls give them sexual favors.12

If the prison had a more rigid screening process, this problem might have been avoided.  The main problem private businesses run into when trying to take over a government business is to know when to draw the line and separate government processes and procedures for private processes and procedures.  My review of multiple government and private prison websites revealed that individual applicants were required to complete more lengthy and extensive screening information when applying for government positions. Therefore, my suggestion is that privatized prisons should require more rigid employment restrictions and implement these screening procedures.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires prison guards to complete a four-year bachelor degree, three of more years of working in the role of a supervisor or counseling role, and guards must complete 120 hours of training within the first sixty days at a special U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons training facility.  In addition to the degree and training, correctional officers have to undergo background checks, drug screenings, physical fitness test, and complete a written test.13  As just one comparison of the job application prerequisites at federal prisons versus private prisons, consider the application requirements at the Winn Correctional Center, located in northern Louisiana.  Winn Correctional Center is ran by the Corrections Corporation of America, which is part of the largest private correctional corporation in America.  The application gives some general guidelines — all applicants had to meet the following; possess a high school degree, or GED equivalent, have a valid drivers license and be at least 18 years of age.14

With such substandard requirements for privatized prisons, prisons are more likely to attract and hire substandard guards.  Substandard guards may not know how to handle situations with inmates as easily, likely resulting in more prisoner and guard attacks.  Additionally, with less rigid screening and requirements, some applicants with former convictions and criminal backgrounds can fall through the cracks.  The government might pass a federal law to have privatized prisons check their applicants’ backgrounds more thoroughly.

The government takes several steps and measures to prevent these incidences such as these from happening.  Generally speaking the government uses its legislative oversight power to investigate into public government entities such as the U.S. Post Office, welfare, or public prisons.15  However, the government uses less oversight with privatized prisons, for a major reason, private businesses are protected from the government searching through its records without probable cause.  By the time the government has probable cause (i.e. escapes, assaults, inmate deaths) the government is too late and cannot prevent the situation from happening.

IV. Conclusion

            The U.S. prison population is continuously growing, and as a result the government needs to decide how to house the growing number of incarcerated.  For the last few years the U.S. economy has experienced a deep recession, leaving capital resources tighter than ever for government entities and agencies.  Over the years, the government has looked to save money through privatization.  Privatization of government entities can heed great results of private businesses by using less money while improving the service the government once provided.

Whether or not the government should privatize prisons is highly debatable.  Some surveys indicate that the United States government could only save about 1 percent of the money while some proponents argue that privatizing prisons could save the government up to 20 percent of the money the U.S. spends on incarceration of inmates with other studies.  Privatized prisons have been shown to have a higher maintenance levels, better counseling, low cost labor, and are cheaper to house inmates in.  But on the other hand, private prisons have been shown to have higher assault rates, lower health, and food quality and a substandard staff.

The legislation should pass acts to give the government more power into giving the legislature more oversight with privatized prisons.  In order to decrease the number of assaults, privatized prisons should implement the government’s qualifications for prison guards on the federal level into their qualifications.  Privatized prisons should adapt as many of its policies of the public administration as they can before they start losing money.  Their job is to replicate the U.S. prison system, a system that has centuries of history that have better created it over time.  Private companies that cater to running correctional facilities need to work in close ties with other public prisons to learn how to run a prison correctly so they do not end up with incidences, such as the one that occurred in Coke County Juvenile Justice Center.  Privatized prisons have a past, recent, and debatable place in America.










1. Austin, J., & Coventry, G. (2001). Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons, page 11. Retrieved July 5, 2009, from

2. Ibid, page iii.

3. Ibid, page 14.

4. Ibid, page 1.

5. Gran, B., & Henry, W. (2007/2008). Holding Private Prisons Accountable A Socio-Legal Analysis of “Contracting Out” Prisons. Social Justice, 34 (3-4) 173-191.

6. Ibid, page 183.

7. Ibid, page 173.

8. Ibid.

9. Bourge, C. Sparks fly over private vs public prisons – page 2. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from

10. Austin, J., & Coventry, page 24.

11. Ibid.

12. Price, R. Texas Prison Bid’ness. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from

13. Prison Guard Career Requirements. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from

14. Application Details. Retrieved July 4, 2009, from

15. Denhardt, R. B., & Denhardt, J. V. (2009). Public Administration: An Action Orientation.

Belmont: Wadsworth Pub Co., pages 64-65.


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