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Who is in Private Prisons? New Study Provides Surprising Answers

by Christopher Zoukis

The election of pro-business and law-and-order candidate Donald Trump to the presidency has been a boon to companies that operate for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers. So perhaps now is a good time to ask a question that has seen surprisingly little attention: Who is in private prisons, in terms of both detainees and staff members?

In a December 2017 study published by the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, sociology professor Brett C. Burkhardt, Ph.D., provided answers to this seemingly simple question. Burkhardt, with Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy, analyzed data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to provide a demographic breakdown of both prisoners and employees in the private prison industry, which he then compared to their counterparts at government-operated facilities.

The most startling of Burkhardt’s findings concern who is employed in for-profit prisons. According to the BJS data, private prisons employ guards that are disproportionately female and black in comparison with state and federal prisons. Specifically, Burkhardt found that women comprise nearly half the staff in privately-operated prisons, compared to about 25 percent in government facilities. Blacks make up about 40 percent of private prison workers but only 22 percent in state and federal prisons.

Given the fact that guards in privately-operated facilities earn less than their public counterparts, are generally not unionized and supervise more prisoners due to higher staff-to-prisoner ratios, it is fair to question this disparity. Burkhardt suggested that future research is needed, and wondered whether “female and black or Hispanic workers [are] overrepresented in private prisons because these workers have been relegated to this ‘secondary labor market’ through processes of racial or gender discrimination in the public sector.”

His study also confirmed that private prisons engage in a process referred to as “creaming” in order to maximize profits. Through creative contracting and business practices, for-profit prisons ensure that they house prisoners with the fewest needs (such as no serious medical conditions), who are serving the shortest sentences. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.1]. According to the study, about one-third of the typical private prison population is made up of prisoners serving less than one year. In state facilities, such prisoners account for 11 percent of the population, while in federal prisons only about one percent of all prisoners are serving a term of less than a year.

The answers to the questions posed in this study – who is in private prisons – have significant ramifications for policymakers. Burkhardt posits that “privatization in the criminal justice system may involve its own unique forms of social inequities and disparities.” As such, legislators and stakeholders may need to rethink the role of private industry in our nation’s carceral setting.

“To the extent that private prisons hold and employ different populations,” Burkhardt wrote, “they should be viewed as an auxiliary piece of the prison system, rather than a direct substitute for traditional state or federal prisons.” 



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