It's no secret that privately run, for-profit prisons can be shady places. The multibillion-dollar industry has steadily become a particularly maligned sector of the prison-industrial complex in the United States, notorious for a unique blend of corruption, reticence, and violence. Headlines over the past few years can stand alone as biting critiques of a world in which prisons operate as businesses.
But a body of mounting evidence suggests there are nationwide patterns of racial disparities in private prisons that add a compelling—if not necessarily shocking—vantage point for many scholars and advocates of social and criminal justice. It also sheds new light on the disproportionate impact mass incarceration in America has on communities of color.
A recent study by Brett Burkhardt, an associate professor at Oregon State University, found that private prisons across the country were found to have a disproportionately higher Hispanic population than public prisons by nearly two percentage points, and a smaller white population by more than eight points. That's after accounting for factors that might explain away racial differences like facility location and immigrant numbers—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) occasionally sends illegal immigrants to private facilities that aren't explicitly immigration detention centers.
Burkhardt's findings don't necessarily point to higher incarceration rate of Hispanics, though. Rather, he says, the higher numbers appear to stem from the process by which inmates are assigned to correctional facilities, a behind-closed-doors task usually carried out by prison administrators. The indication that there could exist racial patterns in these processes is troubling, and raise potential legal concerns for corrections officials.
Whether or not you think it's legal to use race as a factor in where inmates are in placed (it's not), it's important to keep in mind that companies like Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) and GEO Group—the two largest private prison companies—make a substantial portion of their profits from ICE contracts. The numbers, then, could speak to an unhealthy reliance by private prison companies on Hispanic inmates and detainees. It could also explain their heavyweight lobbying efforts against immigration reform over the years.
"My findings regarding the overrepresentation of Hispanics in private prisons dovetail with our knowledge about the extensive use of private firms to detain illegal immigrants (who are predominantly Hispanic)," Burkhardt told me in an email. "These two facts suggest that private corrections firms are heavily invested in having Hispanic inmates to lock up."
Burkhardt's study falls short in its attempt to explain the disparities it lays out. But it comes on the heels of another project that posits a compelling link between race and age in this country's private and public prisons.
According to a study by Chris Petrella, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Berkeley, people of color are more likely to serve time in private prisons than public ones. Once there, inmates face a potential grab bag of substandard conditions like higher rates of violence and recidivism, poorer health care, and fewer educational and rehabilitative program opportunities relative to public prisons. Out of the nine states Petrella examined, all were found to have higher rates of African Americans and Hispanics locked up in private prisons, with fewer inmates over the age of 50.
Petrella thinks age is a key piece of the puzzle. It's well known that incarceration levels are disproportionately high among younger people of color thanks to war on drugs policies like mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses and "three strike" laws. It's somewhat less well known that private prison companies are keen to draw up strict contractual agreements with states such as Arizona and Colorado to guarantee things like "occupancy quotas" and "low-crime taxes" to secure capacity control and profit margins.
But private prisons often contractually exempt themselves from the financial burdens of medically expensive—which is to say older—inmates. It should come as no surprise, then, that according to the study, the "states in which the private versus public racial disparities are the most pronounced also happen to be the states in which the private versus-public age disparities are most salient."
"Race is basically a proxy for health, and therefore age," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice advocacy group opposed to the for-profit prison industry. "Private prisons pluck healthy folks and send people who are less healthy and therefore more expensive to incarcerate back to the public system." According to an ACLU report, it costs $34,135 to house an "average" inmate and $68,270 to house an inmate 50 or older. For private prisons, this cherry-picking belies the high-efficiency/low-cost claims made by both private prison companies and their advocates.
When I reached out to CCA for comment via email, the company categorically dismissed my sources as "deeply flawed" and bereft of a "basic understanding of government contracting, corrections management, or inmate programming."
Yet the trend these studies capture speaks to a larger issue of incarceration in the United States. "There have always been palpable linkages in the US between race and various forms of punishment and profit," Petrella told me over the phone. "There's a lot of evidence to suggest those three nodes—racial formation, containment or punishment, and profit—actually reinforce one another quite well.
"I think it's really important to note," he added, "that though people of color are overrepresented in private prisons relative to public prisons, and though companies like CCA and GEO don't necessarily explicitly try to ensure that there's a specific racial composition of their prisons, [private prisons] partake in a larger project of racial formation in the US."
Private prisons were born out of a culture of incarceration where harsh sentencing practices reigned supreme, and where prisoners were lining up faster than administrators could lock them away. Though those conditions still exist today to a very large extent, there is evidence of a reevaluation germinating in the high courts and voting booths.
As VICE has reported, federal prison populations are slowly shrinking, and California just took a major stride in defelonizing drug use. Kentucky notably walked away from renewing a CCA contract, ending the state's decades-long relationship with private prisons. There is even talk of an "imminent" reintroduction of a bill by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas that would mandate a basic structure of information reporting for the private prison industry (which is notoriously sluggish and secretive in providing information reports).
While private prisons can surely be as corrosive as they are often portrayed, they're also stand-ins for larger problems, and for a simple reason: states and governments are ultimately the ones that call the shots in these relationships. CCA was quick to point this out when I contacted them. But a growing public awareness of the problems these institutions present could augur a downturn in their dominance. In 2012, states roundly rejected a CCA proposal offering to buy up facilities in return for high occupancy quotas, and this month, an indictment of a Mississippi corrections official accused him of accepting $1 million from private prison interests. With any luck, the back-door workings of private prisons will continue to bubble up, and with them, so will public concern.
Alex Mierjeski is a freelance reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.