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For-Profit Prisons: Eight Statistics That Show the Problems

As private prisons become the norm in the United States, it’s time society takes a look at the institution and asks,

As private prisons become the norm in the United States, it’s time society takes a look at the institution and asks, “Are prisons really being used as rehabilitation/deterrence for crime, or have private interests started attaching price tags to lawbreakers’ heads and exploited their incarceration for profit?”

Here are several key statistics that paint an ugly, troubling picture of the for-profit prison system in America:

500% Increase

The biggest private prison owner in America, The Corrections Corporation of America, has seen its profits increase by more than 500% in the past 20 years. Moreover, the business’ growth shows no sign of stopping, having already approached 48 states to take over government-run prisons.

10-60 Pounds Lighter

One way for-profit prisons to minimize costs is by skimping on provisions, including food. A psychiatrist who investigated a privately run prison in Mississippi found that the inmates were severely underfed and looked “almost emaciated.” During their incarceration, prisoners dropped anywhere from 10 to 60 pounds.


100% of all military helmets, ID tags, bullet-proof vests and canteens are created in federal prison systems through prison labor. Though prisoners are “generously” compensated cents per hour, it’s clear having this inexpensive, exploited labor force is critical to the military industrial complex. I bet that the irony that mostly non-violent offenders are making war gear for others to perpetuate violence abroad without consequence is not lost on many of the inmates.

90% Occupancy

States sign agreements with private prisons to guarantee that they will fill a certain number of beds in jail at any given point. The most common rate is 90%, though some prisons are able to snag a 100% promise from their local governments. Because of these contracts, the state is obligated to keep prisons almost full at all times or pay for the beds anyway, so the incentive is to incarcerate more people and for longer in order to fill the quota.


One in every four people that is incarcerated worldwide is held captive in a United States jail. How is it that a country with only 5% of the world’s population has 25% of all the inmates? Simple: prisoners are source of revenue for private companies, so the demand for incarcerating them is especially high.

11 Times

Violent crimes are down overall, so how does the United States keep prisons stocked instead? Amplifying the war on drugs: there are now 11 times as many people in jail for drug convictions than there were in 1980, constituting 50% of the prison population. Longer mandatory minimum sentences also keeps the inmates in longer. Most people incarcerated for drug charges are non-violent, have no prior record, and are addicts rather than major drug-traffickers.


Nearly half of all detained immigrants are held in privately owned facilities. The fact that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has stepped up its game to detain more undocumented immigrants – about 400,000 each year – has actually increased the need for private systems as most detainees will linger in the system waiting for court dates for months if not years.

Civil rights groups have deemed the quality of care provided in immigrant detention centers unacceptable, particularly because of the large numbers of preventable fatalities and sexual assaults.

$45 million

The three largest for-profit prison corporations have spent more than $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to keep politicians on the side of privatized incarceration. In light of all of their ethical violations, it’s obvious that they have to offer some incentive for keeping their business legal.