An Oregon State University professor says his comparative study of prison demographics supports critics who say private prisons “skim the best inmates with the lowest needs in attempt to minimize costs.” The study found that inmates in for-profit institutions serve disproportionately shorter sentences than the general incarcerated population.
Inmates of private prisons are disproportionately non-white compared to incarcerated state and federal populations, according to a study published this month in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice.
The study author, Brett C. Burkhardt, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy, compared the demographics of private prison inmates and employees to those in state and federal prisons, based on 2005 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities—the most recent figures available.
According to the study’s findings, white inmates make up 53 percent of the adjusted population in state prisons, but only 45 percent of the population in private prisons.
Just as significantly, Burkhardt says his findings show that private prison inmates serve shorter sentences on average than their counterparts in federal and state institutions.
“Critics have long suspected that private prison firms skim the best inmates with the lowest needs in attempt to minimize costs” wrote Burkhardt, noting that they operate according to a “business ethos” that directed them to maximize revenues and minimize costs.
Contractual arrangements between a government and contractor specify the types of inmates that may or may not be received by private prisons. But because public record laws typically do not apply to private prisons, these documents are not readily available, Burkhardt wrote.
“This is unfortunate because the private contractors are providing a service that is fraught with potential violations of inmates’ constitutional rights and because taxpayers are paying the price,” Burkhardt added.
Some states have stipulations about the kinds of inmates eligible for detention in private prisons, he noted. Private prison contracts in Arizona, for example, mandated that high-risk inmates or those with high medical needs were sent to state or federal prisons.
In Minnesota, one private prison did not accept offenders over the age of 60, or anyone with mental health orders.
Historically, he observed, private prisons have fared poorly on a variety of performance measures, including access to health care and work assignments.
Compared to state-run prisons, inmates in private sector prisons have limited access to disease prevention programs, are guarded by staff with less training, and have more grievances.
The study also found that private prisons are typically non-unionized workplaces that disproportionately hire female workers and women of color. Staff workers in private prisons also receive lower wages than those in the public sector.
The demographics for private prison employees show similarly imbalances when compared to state and federal prisons. Some 40 percent of the staff in private prisons are African American, compared to 22 percent in state prisons; 11 percent are Hispanic, compared to six percent in state prisons.
Women make up roughly half of the prison staff in private prisons, but only about 25 percent in state and federal prisons.
To the extent that private prisons hold and employ different populations, they should be viewed as an auxiliary piece of the prison system, not a direct substitute for traditional state or federal prisons, suggested Burkhardt.
The study raises questions about the process by which inmates are assigned to private vs. public prisons.
Typically, policy makers have viewed private prisons as engines for economic growth.
“But given documented pattern of poor compensation and instability in private prison jobs, the true result is likely to be an employment model that takes advantage of existing market insecurities among historically marginalized groups of workers,” the study said.
That model, concluded Burkhardt, “is not the robust economic engine that civic leaders might hope for.”
This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Megan Hadley. Readers’ comments are welcome.