In America, mass incarceration is big business. Over the past three decades, private prisons have grown at an astounding rate, with a 1600 percent increase in their populations between 1990 and 2005. Today, privately owned prisons and detention centers are part of an immense, multibillion-dollar enterprise that profits off punishment. For-profit prisons and the broader prison-industrial complex that surrounds corrections today are not the engine behind the growth of prison populations. In fact, eliminating private prisons entirely would only shrink the state prison population by 7 percent. However, it is important to study and understand the industry’s influence and explore ways to ensure the industry is more accountable.
The Brennan Center is at the forefront of revealing the human and economic cost of the privatization of justice. Our research has shown how a profit motive can prove a significant impediment to decarceration. Yet reducing mass incarceration is now a bipartisan concern, and, short of abolishing private prisons, there are a number of reforms that can ensure better outcomes for the individuals incarcerated and detained in these facilities, such as performance-based contracts that require recidivism reduction, legislation that would require transparency of documents and requested information, and enhanced oversight of these prisons and detention centers.