In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section For-Profit Private Prisons and the Criminal Justice–Industrial Complex

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Private Prisons: Legitimacy, Accountability, and Administration Issues
  • The Military-Industrial Complex, the Criminal Justice–Industrial Complex, and the Prison-Industrial Complex
  • Private Prisons and the Criminal Justice–Industrial Complex: Key US Government Documents and Data
  • Understanding the US-Based Private Prison Companies: What They Say about Themselves

Criminology For-Profit Private Prisons and the Criminal Justice–Industrial Complex
Paul Leighton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0292


Privatization refers to outsourcing government functions to a private, usually for-profit, business although the arrangement can be with a non-profit organization. Currently, the most privatized aspect of criminal justice is punishment in general and prisons in particular. Prisons have historically engaged in “nominal privatization,” which includes privatization of services such as the designing and construction of prisons, provision of food services, medical care, and commissary. During the 1980s, contracts expanded to include “operational privatization,” which meant contracting out the day-to-day management of prisons to private, for-profit companies. Operational privatization involves a private company operating a facility owned by the government or managing inmates in a prison that the company owns. In some countries, such arrangements may be called public private partnerships (PPP) or private finance initiatives (PFI). Operational privatization originated during the 1980s in the United States, which was undergoing an unprecedented prison expansion because of ongoing wars on crime and drugs. At the same time, politicians were promising tax cuts, so privatization allowed a resolution to the contradiction by allowing private capital to profit by taking on some traditional responsibilities of government. Despite objections that the privatization of punishment and prison were different in nature than, say, trash collection, the dominant political view was that government kept sentencing authority and business could do the other functions more efficiently. While operational privatization has spread to a handful of countries, the largest private prison corporations are US-based, multibillion-dollar multinational companies that are traded on stock exchanges. As such, private prisons are the tip of a much larger criminal justice (CJ)–industrial complex, which describes a range of business and financial interests whose profit motive can shape criminal justice policy, including in ways that perpetuate current injustices. The CJ-industrial complex, mirroring the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned of, is comprised of everyone who financially profits from the police, courts, and corrections system. In turn, it is part of a larger security-industrial complex, which includes private security, investigators, intelligence, and technology sold as a response to (real and exaggerated) fear of crime, hackers, terrorists, and youth. Even when considered on its own, though, the CJ-industrial complex is significant because it could also mirror the concerns Eisenhower had: that because of its size and lobbying power, the defense industry could start to make policy based too much on its own interest rather than for the public good.

General Overviews

Bauer 2018 is an investigative reporter’s experience as an underpaid guard in an understaffed, violent private prison. Eisen 2018 provides the most recent and comprehensive overview of private prisons in the United States, based on research, visits, and interviews. Le Vay 2015 is a comprehensive overview of private prisons in the United Kingdom based on the author’s experience in the public and private sector. Price and Morris 2012 is a three-volume encyclopedia that covers a wide range of general and niche issues. Selman and Leighton 2010 “follows the money” to investigate and critique private prisons, while Hallett 2006 exposes the overlap between race and capitalism in punishment. Carceral 2006 describes being an inmate in a private prison whose understaffing and turnover led to a riot. In contrast to the larger volume of critical material on private prisons, the anthology Tabarrok 2002 is an overview of key issues written by supporters of privatization. Logan 1990 is an early favorable overview of private prisons.

  • Bauer, Shane. 2018. American prison: A reporter’s undercover journey into the business of punishment. New York: Penguin Press.

    A reporter for Mother Jones magazine takes a $9-per-hour correctional officer position in a Louisiana private prison run by CCA (now CoreCivic). After four weeks of training, he starts twelve- to sixteen-hour days in a violent and understaffed prison, chronicling the prison environment and his personal transformation. This book echoes Carceral 2006 but from the guard’s point of view; it is the expanded version of the Mother Jones article “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.”

  • Carceral, K. C. 2006. Prison, Inc.: A convict exposes life inside a private prison. Edited by Thomas Bernard. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Pseudonymously written account by an inmate in a private prison reflecting on prison life leading up to a riot. The author points to low pay, high turnover, inadequate training, and low staffing for a situation where inmates basically ran the prison. Bauer 2018 presents a guard’s view of a private prison that highlights a similar set of concerns.

  • Eisen, Lauren-Brooke. 2018. Inside private prisons: An American dilemma in the age of mass incarceration. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Eisen “endeavors a fair-minded look” (p. 7) at the industry. This book’s eleven chapters deliver a comprehensive overview, including industry origins, prisoners as commodities, politics, immigrant detention, and arguments about their legitimacy. Each topic contains a great deal of information representing many sides of the debate through her exhaustive literature review, reporting of on-site visits, and interviews.

  • Hallett, Michael. 2006. Private prisons in America: A critical race perspective. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    The author examines punishment through the lens of political economy and the control of the surplus population. The unemployed, unemployable, and undeserving surplus population are disproportionately minority, while rewards for their social control go to capitalist businesses and tough on crime politicians. Book chapters thus analyze various historical and contemporary issues at the intersection of punishment, race, and financial and moral entrepreneurs.

  • Le Vay, Julian. 2015. Competition for prisons: Public or private? Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1t89dz0

    This book focuses on Great Britain, where the author has been a finance director of HM Prison Service (HMPS) then employed by one company that competed with, and another that partnered with, HMPS. Author claims he is neutral and “interested in what gets the best results for the money available” (p. xi). Chapters provide thoughtful overview of origins, market operations, cost and quality comparisons, legitimacy issues, and overall assessments.

  • Logan, Charles H. 1990. Private prisons: Cons and pros. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Recognizing the ambivalence Americans have for government, the author provides an early comprehensive overview of issues related to private prisons. Key issues of for-profit prisons include propriety (the legitimacy of contracting out the coercive power of government), cost, efficiency, quality, quantity, flexibility, security, liability, monitoring, corruption, and dependence. The author sees analogous problems with both public and private prisons; he wants both to compete and cooperate to evolve better prisons.

  • Price, Byron, and John Charles Morris, eds. 2012. Prison privatization: The many facets of a controversial industry. Santa Barbara, CA: Prager/ABC-CLIO.

    Price and Morris have put together a three-volume encyclopedia with chapter-length treatments by specialists of a variety of key issues about private prisons. Volume 1 is the Environment of Private Prisons. Volume 2 is Private Prisons and Private Profit. Volume 3 is The Political Climate of Prison Privatization.

  • Selman, Donna, and Paul Leighton. 2010. Punishment for sale: Private prisons, big business, and the incarceration binge. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    The authors argue that “following the money” is essential to understanding criminal justice policy. They review the origins and business models of private prisons, partly derived from Securities and Exchange Commission forms. They obtain contracts through the Freedom of Information Act and report on them. They argue that private prisons were born out of an unjust war on crime, profited from it and have an economic incentive to perpetuate it.

  • Tabarrok, Alexander, ed. 2002. Changing of the guard: Private prisons and crime control. Oakland, CA: Independent Institute.

    This anthology collects articles written by five supporters of private prisons. It examines prison privatization in terms of economics of prisons, origins of privatization and its future prospects, cost and performance, and how “efficient” prison should be.

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