Population in Private Prisons Grew Five Times Faster than Total Prison Population, 2000-2016
The Sentencing Project
Aug 2, 2018


Despite substantial research that challenges the purported cost-saving benefits of private prisons, and the bipartisan consensus on the need to address mass incarceration, from 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in private prisons increased 47 percent, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 9 percent, according to a new report from The Sentencing Project. 

Twenty-seven states and the federal government relied on private prisons to incarcerate 128,063 people as of 2016, reports Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons. New Mexico had the highest proportion (43 percent) of its population held privately, followed closely by Montana with 39 percent in 2016. 

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on private prisons increased dramatically (120 percent) since 2000 from 15,524 to 34,159. While a recent reduction in the federal prison population helped precipitate a phasing out of private contracts during the Obama administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly reversed the plan in early 2017. In subsequent months he has sought to expand the number of private prison beds in expectation of renewed growth in the federal prison population.

The report concludes with policy recommendations, including ending for-profit prison privatization, barring transfers to private facilities far from home and removing mandated bed-quotes for immigration detention which incentive private contracts.

The report, authored by Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives, and Vinay Basti, Intern, also includes in-depth case studies of prison privatization in Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Texas. The profiles offer historical context about state criminal justice policies, and document the political culture, perspectives and circumstances that influenced the rise or fall of private prisons in each jurisdiction.

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