Private prisons are nothing new for the United States, with some form of the practice dating back to the Revolutionary War. While these organizations have existed in the margins throughout U.S. history, it wasn’t until Reagan’s “War On Drugs” stiffened the penalties for non-violent drug users that lead to more people receiving heftier sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Over time, as the inmate population increased, federal facilities quickly became overcrowded, and by 1997 private prisons had started to become a much more prominent factor in our criminal justice system. Right now, there are 130 private facilities in the U.S., with a total of about 157,000 beds. Their occupants total about 12% of all federal inmates and about 6% of state inmates.
That’s a relatively small slice of the U.S. prison population, but private prisons have been coming under fire more and more in recent years as stories of abuse and neglect inside their walls have spread. This development calls into question their overall effectiveness in not only housing prisoners but in rehabilitating them as well.
In light of that, a question has to be asked: Can for-profit prisons exist as a necessary and functional part of our justice system, or will their focus on profit continue to marginalize inmates and trample their rights, ultimately causing these facilities to inflict more harm than good in the long run? While the answer seemed to be a firm “No,” a recent policy pivot by the Justice Department has pushed this all back into the discussion on how to properly house and rehabilitate America’s prisoners.