Private Prisons in Crime Fiction

Build it and they shall come…

Private prisons have been a popular recurring theme in crime fiction and television drama. Most of the stories I’ve come across involve some smoky backroom deal between a corrupt judge and a private prison operator. Newly sentenced offenders, often kids, are portrayed as victims who wouldn’t have come to the corrupt private prison, if not for the dirty dealings of corrupt officials.

Nice storyline–too bad it’s far-flung hooey. With few exceptions, it simply doesn’t happen that way. In California, a state with a long history with private prisons, judges and corrupt prosecuting attorneys do not sentence wrong-doers to a private prison. In truth, judges can’t even pick what state prison their defendants will serve out their sentences.

Private prisons are filled from existing state prison populations. You have to be a sentenced offender to go there. Moreover, there are very strict criteria for selecting inmates for a private prison. I’ve been in a position to oversee transfers from prisons to private facilities, and negotiate contract provisions with private prison corporations. The type of inmate housed at these facilities is always a topic of concern.


The private prisons are capable of safely housing only a very narrow segment of the inmate population.  The selection criteria invariably includes, non-violent offenders, no gang members, no sex offenders, no serious in-prison rules violations, no medical or mental health treatment concerns, and a short time remaining on their sentence. In other words, the privates take only the lowest risk and lowest need inmates in the system.

Where crime fiction captures private prisons in an accurate light is the fact that the corporations operating these facilities are making a profit, and a big one. Nationally, the private prison industry’s two largest players, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, reported annual revenue of $3.3 billion. CCA and GEO hold slightly over 50 percent of the private prison bed contracts.


So, what’s driving the use of private prisons? The federal bureau of prisons houses 20 percent of their population in private beds. As much as 7 percent of state level inmates are housed in them. Why use them?

The private prisons came into the corrections game as a temporary, stop gap measure to provide thousands of prison beds while the government ground out the bureaucratic sausage required to construct new state prison beds. The private sector could site, build, and staff up small facilities much faster than bloated government operations.

Once the private prison camel got its nose under the tent, there was no getting them back out. The state had built all the capacity it needed, and in fact, was under federal court pressure to reduce population–yet the private prison contracts remained in place.

The corporate prisons went to the legislature and proclaimed they could do the job cheaper than the state. And indeed they could do it cheaper on paper. The staff are not peace officers, not trained like their state prison counterparts, and are paid a fraction of the wages offered by state prisons. Further, the private prisons offer few rehabilitative programs for the inmates housed within their walls. In other words it costs less to house a low level, semi-idle inmate in a private prison than, say a medium security inmate who requires close supervision because of his offense history, coupled with a severe mental illness.

Even if it managed to pencil out as a wash on the budget sheet, private prisons have been found lacking. In the waning months of the prior administration, the Office of the Inspector General investigated the use of private prison by the bureau of prisons and recommended that they be eliminated. They found there are more safety and security issued in private prisons, including assaults, than in government run facilities.

low wages private

In light of this damning evidence, how do they keep running? Influence to the tune of $8.7 million in lobbying efforts by CCA and GEO alone.

Crime fiction should capture the ethical problems created by a corporation assuming a public obligation. The moral dilemma of a for-profit entity having control over state-issued punishment is a huge black hole. There is built in conflict of interest when private prisons can impose sanctions that lengthen a prison sentence and pad their bottom line at the same time.

So when you write about a private prison–the plot is much more complex than a judge with his hand out…



  1. Interesting info. here to chew on. Thanks for illuminating!

    1. My pleasure, Lisa!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: