Skip to main content
Publications

Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Detention

July 19, 2012
Cody Mason
Harsher immigration enforcement and legislation led to a 59% increase in the number of detainees being held by the federal government between 2002 and 2011. This report examines how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) have increasingly relied on private companies to detain these individuals, as well as the complex network of facilities that house federal detainees, and the failings of private detention.

The War on Drugs and harsh sentencing laws led to explosive growth in state and federal prison populations in the 1980s. The massive rise in prisoners overwhelmed government budgets and resources, and created opportunities for private prison companies to flourish. In 2010, one in every 13 prisoners in the U.S. was held by for-profit companies, despite evidence that private prisons often provide inadequate levels of service and are no more cost-effective than publicly-run facilities. In addition, private prisons operate on a business model that emphasizes profits over the public good, and benefit from policies that maintain America’s high incarceration rate.

Nonetheless, these companies could count on predictable growth in the number of state and federal prisoners until 2008, when budget crises and policy changes led some states to reduce their prison populations and private prison contracts. The resulting losses for private prison companies were more than offset by expansion of their management of federal detainees under the jurisdiction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of privately-held inmates decreased by 1,281, while the number of privately-held detainees increased by 3,327. This growth was part of a larger trend that saw the total private detainee population increase by 259 percent between 2002 and 2010; a change largely due to stepped up efforts to find, incarcerate, and deport people who violate immigration laws. There are indications that federal detention will remain a major market for private companies.

There are two key concerns about the expansion of private federal detention that need to be addressed. First, many of the problems associated with private corrections appear equally valid in the area of private detention. These include unsubstantiated claims of cost savings, problems with oversight, and high staff turnover. Second, there are considerable concerns regarding transparency in the use of private detention. The way federal agencies report data on privately-held detainees, along with the complex contractual arrangements and tiered layers of bureaucracy that result from privatization, make it difficult to ascertain the full scope of detention privatization at any given time. Without such transparency, policymakers and citizens are inherently limited in their ability to assess the full effects of privatization.

This report details how harsher immigration enforcement and legislation led to a 59% increase in the number of detainees being held by the federal government between 2002 and 2011. It specifically examines how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) have increasingly relied on private companies to detain these individuals, as well as the complex network of facilities that house federal detainees, and the failings of private detention.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

 
Related Posts
news
State Advocacy News: Prisons, Protest and COVID-19
May 05, 2020

State Advocacy News: Prisons, Protest and COVID-19

Despite the pandemic, advocates are finding new ways to continue challenging mass incarceration through virtual events and social distance gatherings.
news
State Advocacy News: Reform Responses to COVID-19
April 06, 2020

State Advocacy News: Reform Responses to COVID-19

COVID-19 has led state advocates to demand prison and jail systems decarcerate to stem outbreaks in facilities often challenged by poor conditions and overcrowding. Decarceration practices or calls for reform have been documented in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia to reduce health risks for incarcerated persons vulnerable to COVID-19.