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Report Says Private Prison Companies Increase Recidivism

by Derek Gilna

In June 2016, In the Public Interest (ITPI), a non-partisan public policy group, published a report titled “How Private Prison Companies Increase Recidivism,” based upon the fact that for-profit prisons rely upon incarceration to generate revenue – thus they have no incentive to provide rehabilitative programs that reduce recidivism. In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, this is a recipe for disaster.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), “50% of incarcerated people return to prison within three years of being released.” The ITPI report noted that “Academic research has found that incarcerating people in prisons operated by private companies, which have business models dependent on incarceration, increases the likelihood of those people recidivating.”

The report further said that while governmental agencies, which do need not to generate profit, typically operate prisons with the goals of rehabilitating prisoners and protecting public safety, private prisons are beholden to stockholders who expect to receive a return on their investment.

“Often,” ITPI wrote, “achieving the profit comes at a cost to prisoners, those who work inside the prisons, and the broader public.”

Private prison companies sell their services to government agencies on the basis of lowering costs, but as the report makes clear, such promises are rarely kept. Cost savings often are not achieved and, in fact, occupancy guarantee clauses in many private prison contracts may compel corrections agencies to pay for vacant bed space. [See, e.g., PLN, Oct. 2016, p.1].

Several studies have found that incarceration in private prisons increases the risk of recidivism by almost 20 percent. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.14; Dec. 2009, p.11]. Other research has determined that violence in private prisons is significantly higher than in government-run facilities, often due to understaffing. Lower numbers of staff in private facilities, of course, increases the profit margin for private prison operators.

Unfortunately, the same research also shows “that prisoners who experience violence while incarcerated are more likely to recidivate than prisoners who do not experience violence.” Further, private prisons are frequently located in remote locations, which makes family visitation difficult. Private prison contractors also charge high fees for phone calls, further isolating prisoners, and the lack of communication with family members frustrates successful reintegration into society after release.

Of course many public prisons are located in rural areas and charge high phone rates, too – so those issues are not specific to privately-operated facilities.

Regardless, the inescapable conclusion of the ITPI report is that private prison companies, due to their business model and need to generate profit, have a greater interest in making money than in decreasing incarceration levels, which results in higher average recidivism rates.