Private for-profit prisons incarcerated 96,370 American residents in 2021, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 10%.
Harmful crime policies of the 1980s and beyond fueled a rapid expansion in the nation’s prison population. The resulting burden on the public sector led to the modern emergence of for-profit prisons in many states and the federal system. Of the 1.2 million people in federal and state prisons, 8%, or 96,370 people, were in private prisons as of year end 2021.1
States show significant variation in the use of private prisons. At one end of the spectrum, Montana incarcerates almost half of its prison population in privately run facilities, but in another 23 states, private prisons are not used at all. A total of 27 states and the federal government use private corporations like GEO Group, Core Civic,2 LaSalle Corrections, and Management and Training Corporation to run some of their corrections facilities.
Montana is not alone in its heavy reliance on private prisons. Arizona, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee rely considerably on private prisons for housing imprisoned people. In these states, between 21% and 45% of the prison population resides in a for-profit prison (See Table 1).
|Jurisdiction||2000||2021||% Private 2021||% Change 2000-2021|
* = Growth began at zero.
** = Wisconsin does not have anyone housed at private facilities. However, when a person
is housed out of state under the Interstate Corrections Compact or the Intergovernmental
Agreement, Wisconsin does not track if the facility is a private state or Federal owned facility.
*** = The Federal count includes Washington, DC residents convicted of a felony. As of December 31, 2001, DC residents convicted of a felony are the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Source: Carson, E. Ann. (2022). Prisoners in 2021 – Statistical Tables. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The proportion of imprisoned people in private facilities compared to public facilities has not changed considerably in the past 20 years. In 2000, 8% of the imprisoned population was also in private facilities; but fluctuations in the total number of people imprisoned over 20 years translated to a 10% rise in the number of people in private prisons. Since 2012, however, the population in private prisons has decreased significantly.
FIGURE 1. Percent of Imprisoned People in Private Prisons, 2021
FIGURE 2. Number of People in Private Prisons, 2000-2021
The largest prison system relying on privatization has been the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Since 2000, the BOP’s reliance on private facilities has increased by 39%. The number of people in federal custody in its private facilities totaled 21,565 people in 2021.3 President Joseph Biden issued an executive order to phase out the BOP’s use of private prison beds, which required the BOP to not re-solicit any expiring contracts with private detention facilities.4 McRae Correctional Facility, located in McRae, Georgia, was the last BOP contract with a private facility which expired in November 2022. The BOP Office of Public Affairs notes that, today, they no longer have people incarcerated in private prisons.
Under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there is an average of 19,254 people held daily in immigrant detention, and 79% of this population is held in privately run facilities.5
Political influences have been instrumental in securing the growth of for-profit private prisons. However, if overall prison populations continue the current trend of modest declines, the privatization debate will likely intensify as opportunities for the prison industry decrease and corporations seek to make profits in related corrections areas.
The counts presented here differ slightly from the counts provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Prisoners in 2021 – Statistical Tables report.
Formerly Corrections Corporation of America.
Federal private facilities include prisons, halfway houses, and systems of home confinement.
Exec. Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities (Jan. 26, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/executiveorder-reforming-our-incarceration-system-to-eliminate-theuse-of-privately-operated-criminal-detention-facilities/
ACLU. (2021). More of the same: Private prison corporations and immigration detention under the Biden Administration.; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (2021). FY 2021 Detention Statistics. https://www.ice.gov/doclib/detention/FY21-detentionstats.xlsx