Higher Profits Explain Why There Are More People of Color in Private Prisons

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In a frame grab from video obtained by The Associated Press, an inmate attacks fellow inmate Hanni Elabed at the privately-run Idaho Correctional Center just south of Boise, Idaho. Elabed suffered brain damage and persistent short-term memory loss after he was beaten by inmate James Haver while multiple guards watched at the Idaho prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. (AP Photo)
In a frame grab from video obtained by The Associated Press, an inmate attacks fellow inmate Hanni Elabed at the privately-run Idaho Correctional Center just south of Boise, Idaho. Elabed suffered brain damage and persistent short-term memory loss after he was beaten by inmate James Haver while multiple guards watched at the Idaho prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. (AP Photo)

It’s well known that people of color are overrepresented in America’s prisons relative to their share of the population. But a recent study finds that they make up an even larger share of the populations of private, for-profit prisons than publicly run institutions.

According to Christopher Petrella, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley who conducted the study, this is not an accident — it’s about private firms selecting the least expensive prisoners to manage and leaving costlier populations in the hands of state correction systems.

Why would African American and Latino prisoners be cheaper to incarcerate than whites? Because older prisoners are significantly more expensive than younger ones. “Based on historical sentencing patterns, if you are a prisoner today, and you are over 50 years old, there is a greater likelihood that you are white,” Petrella explained to BillMoyers.com. “If you are under 50 years old — particularly if you’re closer to 30 years old — you’re more likely to be a person of color.” He cited a 2012 report by the ACLU which found that it costs $34,135 per year to house a non-geriatric prisoner, compared with $68,270 for a prisoner age 50 or older.

“I came to find out that through explicit and implicit exemptions written into contracts between these private prison management companies and state departments of correction, many of these privates — namely GEO and CCA, the two largest private, for-profit prison companies — write exemptions for certain types of prisoners into their contracts,” Petrella said. “And, as you can guess, the prisoners they like to house are low-cost prisoners… Those prisoners tend to be younger, and they tend to be much healthier.”

But why are older prisoners more likely to be white? Petrella explains that “up until the mid-1960s or so, two-thirds of the US prison population was what the Census Bureau would consider non-Hispanic white. Today, that’s totally inverted — about a third of all prisoners around the country are white and around two-thirds are people of color. And the chief explanation for that trend is the so-called drug war, which disproportionately impacts people of color.“

Petrella looked at the nine states with private prison populations large enough to yield reliable data. In four — California, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas — people of color’s share of the private prison population was at least ten percentage points greater than in state-run facilities. The disparity was evident not only in the states included in the study but in 30 of the 32 states that contract with private corrections companies.

Health care is a big part of why older prisoners cost so much more to house than younger ones. But Petrella found the same trend even in those states that provide their prison populations with health care directly and only use private companies to house inmates. “Those assigned to monitor geriatric and/or chronically ill prisoners often require special training, and they often benefit from higher pay grades,” Petrella explained.

The private prison industry has come under criticism for spending millions lobbying for harsh sentences that would put more people in jail. Contracts that require minimum occupancy rates — and force states to pay for unused beds — have also come under fire.

Privatization is sold to the public as a way to save money, but various studies have found that they either end up costing more, or save states just a few dollars per prisoner. According to an American Friends Service Committee study of private prisons in Arizona — a state that’s led the privatization trend — they turn a profit by paying corrections officers less and cutting corners when it comes to security and health care.

Chris Petrella’s study shows that they also pick and choose their prisoners in order to maximize their bottom lines. But somebody has to pay the price.

“One of the reasons I think the study’s important,” Petrella said, “is that it continues to show how laws — and even contractual stipulations — that are, on the surface, race-neutral, continue to have a disproportionate and negative impact on communities of color.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Neil Forte

    The reasoning of the right is that these men are a cost to society, when but in prison they become a profit to the owners of the systems at tax payers expense.The new slavery!!!

  • Eric Davidson

    Couple of items. Could you please point out the guards standing around watching the fight. I don’t see them and really what did the screen grab have to do with the story. And I was also wondering could you give me the name of a prison that was NOT at capacity. I think you will fail to find one.
    A doctoral candidate huh, that is who we are now looking to for our research and facts. And what exactly was the study listed in paragraph one. Who what where and who funded the study.
    What about the fact that a person will not go to jail if they don’t do something illegal. How about a story about all the money which is being pulled away from drug treatment programs all over the US. Programs which could do real good in lowering our prison population. Almost every crime is somehow related to drugs. Drugs are what is killing this nation not companies capitalizing on a market which is there. I believe companies such as CCA and GEO will never find a need to worry about not having beds full. And just wait if the immigration reform bill passes. Take my word for it invest in these companies.

  • Anonymous

    One of the main reasons that all of our prisons are at capacity as well as the jails are the generous subsidies paid per prisoner per day. At local jails, the reimbursement is over $200 per day! This means that if you float bonds to build jails and keep them full, the Feds will make sure it’s profitable. The more cells you build, the more profit. Or “If you build it , they will come”.

    This leads to disparities like Miami vs. Ft. Lauderdale crime stats. Miami/Dade County has less than 1000 cells to hold incoming arrestees waiting trial. Ft. Lauderdale has thousands thanks to a building spree by the former Sheriff to take advantage of the Regan era law change on compensation, shifting the return of Fed dollars from block gfrants to jails. To protect local property values, dontcha’ know. So what happens? In Miami, you pretty much have to do something bad to be arrested. In Broward, you will be arrested and held for trial for sipping a beer on the beach. Broward for a long time was rated the 3rd highest crime rate in the nation because of the cells they had to keep full to pay the bonds. Miami was about 80th (Right!). Wonder what that did for Browards property values?
    We won’t see true reform until we change the way both public and private entities are compensated to remove the profits from the equation.

  • Patashu

    If drugs were legal, cheap, easy to obtain and safe, there would be no black market for drugs, no incentive to do crime to pay for your drugs, no incentive to do crimes to be able to sell your drugs undercover for big money, and therefore drug related crime, as a creation spurred only by its own existence, would devour itself and vanish. Look at Mexico – it’s not the people who take the drugs who form cartels and murder people to continue their black market of drugs, it’s criminals doing it because they’re making so much money off of it, and using all the money they make to perform their acts more and more professionally and dangerously. Start by legalizing Marijuana and go from there :)

  • Anonymous

    No, it’s because Americans in public offensive continue to be racists. America has a long history of racism, it has not disappeared.

  • Gabriel Hickey

    ACTUALLY: The original poster said legalization would help, not that it was some utopian solution. What a smug and badly analysed pseudo-dismissal of another’s argument! Clearly what we have here is just another boring self-absorbed Rethuglican looking to make a sadistic name for himself… and one who’s clearly never been in jail. But don’t worry, the soul-crushing beating room they revel in perpetuating will be revealed for the fantasy it is soon enough, and replaced with a real system. One where the rich and immoral don’t run the business end of things.

  • Gabriel Hickey

    End this insane drug war, legalize drugs, and regulate their safe use and distribution. It is the Constitutional thing to do, the moral thing to do, and the economically sensible thing to do. It would save us all a great many tax dollars, it would remove from our nation this newest incarnation of the scourge of slavery and indentured servitude, and it would show that the plutocracy cannot get away with treating some of us as less equal than others. Only sadists and abusers, as well as those profiting off of the hyper-exploitation of the poor and less fortunate, would oppose such a move. To those who sneeringly dismiss this solution: there are plenty of us who have seen the ravages of addiction, and not all of us respond by becoming reactionary bigots (thank the stars for that, anyway). Besides, their solution is to obfuscate the nature of the problem, spout the usual corporate sycophancy, make excuses for the prison profiteers and generally muddy the waters as much as they can. Fortunately, they usually aren’t too bright, as even the most casual analysis of their “arguments” will easily reveal, so it’s clear they will eventually fail, as even they must realize. How depressing it is to see so many people think abusing and exploiting their fellow humans is acceptable or natural…

  • Gabriel Hickey

    Clearly you were absent from the meltdown of 2007… oh, wait, you mean that law enforcement is doing their job against the poor, while let the wealthy and corporate off with a snicker and a slap on the wrist. And giving the job of imprisonment over private companies is a terrible idea, if only because those same companies refuse to pay taxes and thereby handicap the government, thus evidencing a cynical ploy to enable the very behavior this article laments. The fox of private greed should guard the henhouse of public need? We’ve known that to be a load of crap for several centuries now…

  • Anonymous

    You keep on believing that Bull Pollyanna. And one day one of your Grandkids will get arrested for something you did dozens of times when you were young and you will see the true nature of the American Justice Industry. (Hint: It’s really NOT like what you see on Law and Order”. And your wake-up call will come.

  • http://www.basesandbaskets.com/ Elijah

    I see you, CFP!

  • Anonymous

    I wonder what a re-employment program for prison guards would look like. People still need food, clothes, housing and healthcare outside the walls of a prison. Its not possible to provide all that without employing someone, right?

  • Anonymous

    …but where did racism come from? Imperialism, colonialism, slavery, pillaging, & economic exploitation are all practices that pre-date the invention of Racism, and they all have been practiced by people of every color. If you examine history, Racism was introduced to provide a sort of moral camouflage for Europeans doing those things to non-Europeans. It was introduced to reduce solidarity between lower class people of different origins, to protect the economic interests of the ruling classes. Whether we’re talking about the Dutch East India company or CCA, its still the same thing.

    Whether we’re talking about share-cropping or union-busting or block-busting or the privatization of prisons & schools, racist ideology is promoted by the ruling class to defend their economic interests. Prejudice might be a natural pit fall for our human brains. We do have a penchant for tribalism and predictive analysis. But we can identify the systems that turn those common tendencies into a system of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Without power, bigotry is just people being unfriendly towards one another.

  • Anonymous

    During prohibition, men walked the streets with a flask in their pant leg offering a swig for a dollar. It was so common that the term “boot leggers” was coined for the practice. Eventually, the term came to describe all people involved in the illegal manufacture/sale of alcohol. Gangs of urban ethnic minorities (Italian, Jewish, Irish) shot at eachother with machine guns in the streets for market share, men with nicknames like ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. Once alcohol was legalized, trustworthy law abiding business people entered the market, and noone wanted to buy from dangerous gangsters anymore.

    Todays drug trade has all the same hallmarks as the alcohol trade of yesteryear. It is basically identical. Like alcohol, illegal drugs can be used recreationally but they can also be addictive and harm your health. Like alcohol in prohibition times, even politicians and police use illegal drugs. For instance our last 3 presidents all admit they smoked marijuana, there are rumors that GWB used cocaine, one senator recently got busted for cocaine possession. The cheapest easiest most effective least cruel way to put dangerous street dealers out of business is if we allow trust-worthy law abiding business people to replace them. It worked with alcohol, it will work with other drugs.

  • Anonymous

    I guess you haven’t read about the NYPD filling their arrest quotas by charging people with “trespassing” for entering their own apartment buildings…

  • Anonymous

    ” With all the law in place has they really done anything to help matters?”

    They can’t even keep drugs out of the jails and prisons, with random searches, strip searches, and looking up people’s butts. How many rights would they have to take away from law abiding citizens to actually police drugs away?

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  • rg9rts

    They are just as happy with outrageously long sentences for minor infractions such as pot possession that can earn you 25yrs in Texas.