• Alyse DiNapoli

As Incarceration Rates Drop, California Keeps Moving to Shut Down For-Profit Prisons

Updated: Oct 22, 2019

Californians pushing for prison reform now have the chance to weigh in on a new bill that would ban contracts with all for-profit correctional facilities in the state. AB-32, introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta in December, would definitively end the use of private prisons. While only about 3,700 Californians are actually housed in these facilities (including one in Arizona), the bill reinforces the state’s trend towards a correctional system exclusively run by state and county governments.

The demand for privately-run correctional centers was largely driven by California’s high incarceration rates throughout the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s. But in 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that forced California to deal with its overcrowded prisons, and since then, several criminal justice reforms were passed which reduced the incarceration rate by roughly 25% over the past decade. In addition, according to Scott Graves, Director of Research at the California Budget & Policy Center, state leaders have been expressing their intent to do away with for-profit facilities for awhile.

“The reality is, although a lot of people like to talk about California's use of private prisons, and it's true we do use them and have used them for many years, the state has already expressed a strong preference to stop using them and to prioritize ending the use of private correctional facilities either outside of California or in the state,” he said.

For example, the public safety omnibus bill passed last year specifically stated that it requires the reduction of “private in-state male contract correctional facilities”, even ahead of state-owned prisons. But Californians are not just waiting for their elected officials to take action. In 2015, public pressure-largely led by the Afrikan Black Coalition-pushed the University of California school system to divest money from the Geo Group and CoreCivic, two of the largest private prison firms in the country. CalSTRS, the state’s pension fund for public school teachers, also divested from Geo Group and CoreCivic just last year.

But when it comes to lobbying for legislation that hikes up imprisonment rates, these 2 firms don’t take first place. In fact, some of the biggest spenders pushing tough on crime policies in the state are public sector unions, such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), representing correctional officers and law enforcement employees, respectively. The CCPOA backed the 1994 Three Strikes Law, which is considered one of the biggest catalysts of the incarceration spike. They also spent $1 million to kill Proposition 5, which would have increased funding for rehabilitation services and shortened sentences for nonviolent crimes. PORAC has by far been the largest spender in opposing Propositions 36 and 47, which are a couple of the ballot measures that have decreased incarceration rates and prison sentences in recent years. However, some say that the unions have motivations other than strengthening their membership, such as ensuring higher wages and better quality training.

“They certainly have supported candidates, bills and propositions that promoted higher incarceration rates, but there’s some evidence that they’ve also seen the downside of the tough on crime agenda, including terrible working conditions for correctional officers,” according to an e-mail response by Chris Hartney, senior program specialist at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

It’s hard to deny that correctional officers’ training, salaries and working conditions have direct impacts on inmates. In 2016, the Officer of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report stating that contract- or private- facilities- had higher rates of safety and security-related incidents than the federally-run prisons. The report sent a clear message that these companies should start looking elsewhere for profits.

“Unfortunately, what we see in lots of examples from these companies is that in order to turn a profit, you're going to have to cut corners. And what does that mean when you're cutting corners? It's hiring less-trained staff, hiring less staff altogether, or having inferior materials in terms of security and safety,” says Shar Habibi, Research & Policy Director at In the Public Interest research center.

While the sentiment towards private prisons has since changed under the new administration in Washington, states have still taken matters into their own hands. Illinois, Iowa and New York have banned for-profit prisons altogether, and some places are even experimenting with performance-based compensation with the goal of reducing recidivism. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has implemented an outcome-based structure for community corrections centers, in which a firm’s contract is jeopardized when their recidivism rate goes above a certain range. While community corrections centers typically have higher success rates than a state prison, this model for any type of corrections contract is still quite rare.

According to Habibi, privately-run facilities are oftentimes funded on a per-diem basis, meaning that the state agrees to pay a certain amount per person per day. But many of these contracts also contain what are called bed guarantees, which essentially requires payment to the contractor for a fixed number of beds, whether or not there are enough inmates to occupy them.

“Some contracts will say, ‘You’re going to pay us for 90% of these beds, whether they're filled or not’ it really minimizes the contractor's risk and gives them a floor in terms of how much revenue they're bringing in, and puts the government on the hook to either keep those beds filled or pay for those empty beds,” she mentioned.

But while private contracts may be correlated with inferior staffing and safety conditions, comparing the likelihood of recidivism between public and private prison inmates does not have a clear cut answer. A research brief published by In the Public Interest outlined 4 studies specifically measuring recidivism rates between the 2 types of facilities. It found that the Oklahoma and Minnesota inmates in private facilities were more likely to recidivate, but in Florida, there was no correlation between recidivism rates and the type of prison they were in. In Mississippi, the likelihood of going back to prison based on the facility was either nonexistent or marginally higher in private prisons.

According to Hartney, because private firms don’t excel at the things that typically impact recidivism- such as letting inmates stay in touch with their families, shorter lengths of stay and high quality programs- it’s hard to imagine that for-profit prisons would come out on top.

“A lot of what research there is on private prisons is funded directly or indirectly by private prison companies, which doesn’t automatically mean the study is biased but should raise serious red flags,” he added.

In fact, 3 Florida studies conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s found strong correlations between private prisons and low recidivism rates. However, it was later discovered that the director overseeing the research received large consulting fees from the private prison companies themselves. A more thorough study was subsequently conducted and found no significant correlations.

While closing for-profit prisons has certainly garnered widespread support, some believe that this is only one small battle in the fight to end mass incarceration. And based on the data, sending lots of people to prison may not necessarily be keeping us safer. For example, California’s violent crime rate decreased by about 7% between 2007 and 2017, despite the incarceration rate also decreasing by about 24% between those same years.

“We send too many people to prison and keep them there for too long, and even with the current reforms in place we're likely to continue seeing billions of dollars spent each year on our corrections system when we think those dollars could be invested much more wisely in other public policies,” Graves said. “The only way to truly bring down costs in the corrections system is to stop sending so many people to prison for such a long time and to actually shrink the prison infrastructure.”


Assembly Bill, No.32. Bill Text. California Legislative Information.

Weekly Report of Population (as of midnight January 20, 2019). California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Correctional Policy Research and Internal Oversight.

“State Corrections in the Wake of California’s Criminal Justice Reforms: Much Progress, More Work to Do”, page 6. California Budget & Policy Center. October 2018.

Scott Graves, Director of Research, California Budget & Policy Center.

AB-1812 Public safety omnibus (#9). Bill Text. California Legislative Information.

"UC sells shares in private prison companies after Black Student Unions release resolution". Kimberly Nielsen. December 18, 2015.

CalSTRS to Divest from Private Prisons. CalSTRS. November 7, 2018.

Proposition 05: Non-violent Drug Offenders Sentencing, Parole and Rehabilitation. Follow the Money.

Proposition 036: Three Strikes Law. Follow the Money.

Proposition 047: Criminal Sentences. Follow the Money.

Chris Hartney, Senior Program Specialist. National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons. Office of the Inspector General, US Department of Justice. August 2016.

Shar Habibi, Director of Research & Policy. In the Public Interest.

“Performance-Based Contracts Continue to Positively Affect Recidivism”. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. August 25, 2015.

“How Private Prisons Companies Increase Recidivism”, Research Brief. In the Public Interest. June 2016.

Open Justice, Crime Statistics. State of California Department of Justice. 2007-2016 and 2008-2017.

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