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Private Prisons in the United States

March 03, 2021
Thirty-one states and the federal government incarcerated 116,000 people in private prisons in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.      

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 115,428 people in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 32% compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 3%.

However, the private prison population has declined 16% since reaching its peak in 2012 with 137,220 people. Declines in private prisons’ use make these latest overall population numbers the lowest since 2006 when the population was 113,791.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities. Indeed, Montana held 47% of its prison population in private facilities, while 20 states did not employ any for-profit prisons. Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and interviews with corrections officials find that in 2019, 30 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation.

Twenty states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons. Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 12,516.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 32%. In eight states the private prison population has more than doubled during this time period: Arizona (480%), Indiana (313%), Ohio (253%), North Dakota (221%), Florida (205%), Montana (125%), Tennessee (118%), and Georgia (110%).

Proportion of incarcerated population in private prisons, 2019

The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains the nation’s highest number of people managed by private prison contractors. Since 2000, its use increased 77%, and the number of people in private federal custody — which includes prisons, half-way houses and home confinement — totaled 27,409 in 2019. While a significant historical increase, the population declined 33% since its peak in 2013, likely reflecting the continuing decline of the overall federal prison population. This number will continue to drop as a result of President Biden’s recent executive order to phase out federal contracts with private prison companies.

Among the immigrant detention population, 40,634 people – 81% of the detained population – were confined in privately run facilities in 2019. The privately detained immigrant population grew 739% since 2002 to 2019.1)This number has declined as a result of COVID-19-related releases. The total population held in publicly and privately run facilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped 61% from 37,688 in March 2020 to 14,715 in mid-January 2021. See U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2021. ‘ICE Guidance on COVID-19’; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2020. ‘FY 2020 Detention Statistics.’ Biden’s executive order does not limit private contracts with immigrant detention facilities.

Political influences have been instrumental in determining the growth of for-profit private prisons and continue today. However, if overall prison populations continue the current trend of modest declines, the privatization debate will likely intensify as opportunities for the prison industry dry up and corrections companies seek profit in other areas of criminal justice services and immigration detention.

Overall private prison population numbers, 2019
Table 1. Private prison populations
Jurisdiction 2000 2019 % private 2019 % change 2000-201
Alabama 0 122 0.4 *
Alaska 1,383 221 4.9 -84%
Arizona 1,430 8,291 19.5 480%
Arkansas 1,540 0 0 -100%
California 4,547 1,134 0.9 -75%
Colorado 2,099 3,858 19.5 84%
Connecticut 0 0 0 0
Delaware 0 0 0 0%
D.C. 2,342 ~ ~ ~
Florida 3,912 11,915 12.4 205%
Georgia 3,746 7,883 14.4 110%
Hawaii 1,187 1,248 23.6 5%
Idaho 1,162 1,048 11.1 -10%
Illinois 0 513 1.3 *
Indiana 991 4,093 15.1 313%
Iowa 0 0 0 0%
Kansas 0 0 0 0%
Kentucky 1,268 895 3.9 -29%
Louisiana 3,068 0 0 -100%
Maine 11 0 0 -100%
Maryland 127 29 0.2 -77%
Massachusetts 0 0 0 0%
Michigan 449 0 0 -100%
Minnesota 0 0 0 0%
Mississippi 3,230 3,139 16.2 -3%
Missouri 0 0 0 0%
Montana 986 2,222 47.0 125%
Nebraska 0 0 0 0%
Nevada 508 100 0.8 -80%
New Hampshire 0 0 0 0%
New Jersey 2,498 2,297 12.3 8%
New Mexico 2,155 2,445 36.4 14%
New York 0 0 0 0%
North Carolina 330 30 0.1 -91%
North Dakota 96 308 17.2 221%
Ohio 1,918 6,766 13.4 253%
Oklahoma 6,931 6,474 25.2 -7%
Oregon 0 0 0 0%
Pennsylvania 0 511 1.1 *
Rhode Island 0 0+ 0 0%
South Carolina 0 84 0.5 *
South Dakota 45 33 0.9 -27%
Tennessee 3,510 7,635 29.0 118%
Texas 13,985 12,516 7.9 -11%
Utah 208 0 0 -100%
Vermont 0 268 16.7 *
Virginia 1,571 1,540 4.3 -2%
Washington 0 0 0 0%
West Virginia 0 0 0 0%
Wisconsin 4,337 0 0 0%
Wyoming 275 401 16.2 46%
Federal 15,524 27,409 15.7 77%
Total 87,369 115,954 8.1 33%
Table 1: *Growth began at 0, ~ D.C. count incorporated in federal numbers, + Data from 2017; 2019 figure not available.
Sources: Prisoners Series (2000-2019), Bureau of Justice Statistics. Correspondence with Delaware, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin corrections officials. Overall private prison population total for 2019 differs from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report due to the inclusion of state data obtained by The Sentencing Project which had not been available to the Bureau. Average daily immigrant detention numbers obtained from Immigration and Custom Enforcement and Removal Operations division by Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
 

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