Why For-Profit Prisons House More Inmates Of Color
A by a UC-Berkeley graduate student has surprised a number of
experts in the criminology field. Its main finding: Private prisons are
packed with young people of color.
The concept of racial
disparities behind bars is not exactly a new one. Study after report
after working group has found a version of the same conclusion. The
Sentencing Project estimates , compared with 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men. are four times as high for black Americans as for white. Black in federal prisons than their white peers for the same crimes.
reports and thousands of others have the cumulative effect of
portraying a criminal justice system that disproportionately
incarcerates black Americans and people of color in general.
Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An inmate walks through the yard at the North
Central Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, which recently
switched to private management.
Sociology Ph.D. student Christopher Petrella's finding in "The
Color of Corporate Corrections," however, tackles a different beast.
the historical overrepresentation of people of color in county jails
and federal and state prisons, Petrella found, people of color "are
further overrepresented in private prisons contracted by departments of
correction in Arizona, California and Texas."
This would mean
that the racial disparities in private prisons housing state inmates are
even greater than in publicly run prisons. His paper sets out to
explain why — a question that starts with race but that takes him down a
Age, Race And Money
a bit of background. Private prisons house 128,195 inmates on behalf of
the federal government and state governments (or at least they did as
of 2010). There's a continual debate among legislators and
administrators as to which is more cost-effective: running a
government-operated prison, with its government workers (and unions); or
hiring a private company (like GEO or Corrections Corp. of America) to
house your prisoners for you. States like California, Arizona and Texas
use a combination of both.
In the nine states Petrella
examined, private facilities housed higher percentages of people of
color than public facilities did. Looking back at the contracts the
private companies signed with the states, Petrella figured out the
reason behind the racial disparity: private prisons deliberately exclude
people with high medical care costs from their contracts.
healthier inmates, he found — who've come into the system since the war
on drugs went into effect — are disproportionately people of color.
Older inmates, who generally come with a slew of health problems, skew
Steve Owens, senior director of public affairs for
Corrections Corp. of America, one of the largest private prison
companies in the nation, calls the study "deeply flawed."
email, Owens says, "CCA's government partners determine which inmates
are sent to our facilities; our company has no role in their selection."
he says, "the contracts we have with our government partners are
mutually agreed upon, and as the customer, our government partners have
significant leverage regarding provisions." It's up to the contracting
agency, he says, to decide how it wants to distribute inmates and manage
health care costs.
Owens does not, however, dispute Petrella's numbers.
Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John
Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former civil rights attorney, says
it's a "very interesting" study.
"What I take away from it is how prisoners are looked at as
commodities," she says. "It's all about how the private prisons can make
the most money."
Petrella says he used data compiled by state
correctional departments, which are divided by census-designated
categories and included African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific
Islanders, nonwhite Hispanics and Latinos, and essentially anyone except
those defined by the census as white.
"I know these categories are fungible, but this is the data we have to work with," Petrella says.
points out that Petrella's findings don't necessarily point to a racial
motivation on behalf of private prison companies, and Petrella agrees.
"Profit is the clear motivation," he says. The racial component is more
However, he says, "the study shows that policies
that omit race continue to have negative impacts." He says there's a
larger dialogue to be had about what contemporary racial discrimination
actually looks like.
Barry Krisberg, director of the Chief
Justice Earl Warren Institute at the University of California, Berkeley,
says the findings surprised him. "I had assumed private prisons were
taking a lot of low-risk inmates," he says, "that if you went to a
private prison, you'd find a lot of old, Anglo prisoners. That's not the
questions about prison conditions for different kinds of prisoners.
"The rate of violence is higher at private prisons, and recidivism is
either worse or the same than in public prisons," says Alex Friedmann,
the managing editor of Prison Legal News and the associate director of
the Human Rights Defense Center, a group that opposes private prisons.
Friedmann says part of the trouble is attributable to lower-paid,
lesser-trained staff used in private prisons. But some of it, he adds,
may be due to this higher-risk, younger population in private prisons.
So, Browne-Marshall asks, what are private prisons doing for their age-specific populations?
prisons are devoting a lot of resources to the age-specific needs of
their prisoners," she says, such as building medical facilities,
bringing in highly paid medical staff, and providing expensive mental
health care services. "What about the specific needs of the private
Younger, higher-risk private prisoners need
different kinds of services — especially since they're likely to get
out of prison, back into society. And historically, younger prisoners
are more likely to reoffend, which Browne-Marshall suggests addressing
with education, drug counseling, anger management and other social
The trouble: While courts have intervened to require
prisons to have good medical and mental health care as constitutional
necessities — things that benefit older and sicker prisoners — programs
that mainly benefit younger prisoners aren't usually required. (Another
reason why they're cheaper to house.)
"How do we get
corporations to do what the incarcerated person needs when the
government's not dictating it?" Browne-Marshall asks.
That, she says, is the next question for study.
says CCA offers "safe, secure housing and quality rehabilitation and
re-entry programming at a cost savings to taxpayers. Our programming
includes education, vocational, faith-based and substance abuse
treatment opportunities." Each year, he says, CCA inmates acquire "more
than 3,000" GEDs.
I wrote about this phenomenon in my blog