Private Prisons Must be a Leading Topic in the 2020 Election.

Corporations continue to be able to profit off of incarceration.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Brett Jackson on Unsplash

We’re so used to it now, that it’s almost hard to imagine a time when there were actually no privately owned prisons existing in the United States. Today, these private prisons still continue to play a major role in criminal justice at the state, local, and federal level in the U.S., as they have for decades. As the 2020 election approaches and the need for criminal justice reform is growing more and more difficult for politicians on both sides of the isle to ignore, it’s time to thoroughly examine their history, as well as the impact private prisons have had on this conversation.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has seen a sharp and steady increase in the number of people living behind bars. According to, the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are currently 2.2 million Americans living behind bars, and a total of over 6.6 million are under the supervision of a correctional system.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: The Sentencing Project

Just since 2000, the number of individuals being held in privately owned prisons has increased by 47%. In 2016, 128,063 people were incarcerated in private prisons, accounting for 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population.

It’s difficult to grapple with the notion that an individual and/or corporation can make money off of the incarceration of a human being, but private prisons have spent a significant amount of money in recent years on politicians at all levels of government. These politicians have the power to both maintain the existence of these companies, and make that idea more palatable to the public. found that in 2018 alone the largest private prison contractor in the United States, CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America), spent $840,000 dollars solely on lobbying our politicians. The number two contractor, Geo Group, spent a whopping $1.2 million. Since 1989, these two companies have spent $10 million dollars at the state and local level in order to ensure a seat at the table when it comes time for lawmakers to discuss the criminal justice system.

A policy that private prisons have consistently lobbied for is the bed guarantee, or “lockup quota”. These quotas require that state and local governments who enter into agreements with private prison companies have a minimum occupancy of these prisons, and pay for the unused beds. Analysis conducted across the United States by ITPI in 2013 found that 65% of private prison contracts involved these quotas, with a staggering 90% being the most common minimum occupancy.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: ITPI

Essentially, governments across the country are paying corporations for the lower crime rates. In fact, ITPI found that in Colorado alone, the dropping crime rate that resulted in more open beds ended up costing tax payers an additional $2 million dollars.

So, what type of prisoner is being held in these prisons?

A major factor in the rising incarceration rates that began in the 1980s was due to the increased criminalization of drug uses and sales, resulting in a greater number of arrests and longer prison sentences for these types of offenses. Inevitably, this led to a heightened demand for a place to house these prisoners. In 1984, Tennessee established the first private prison. Since then, just between 1990 and 2005, there has been an astonishing 1600% increase in the number of private prisons.

Aside from the low risk drug offenders the private prison industry saw another opportunity, and was keen to get involved in Donald Trump’s efforts to find and detain undocumented immigrants throughout the country. An article by Reverend Alexander Sharp published by MSNBC in 2018 states that:

“The highly volatile industry has demonstrated its ability to adapt, like a virus, to new markets. Responding to national policy criminalizing immigrants, it began to build detention facilities for this population. The private prison industry now manages 62% — over 350,000 individuals — of all beds in detention facilities run by ICE.”

The Migration Policy Institute also points out that because removals in the U.S. interior take longer to process, immigrants would likely be spending longer periods of time in detention. This was viewed by corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group as a source of optimism, and prompted them to increase their political spending and involvement even further. This occurred at the same time ICE sought five new detention centers. Today, annual reports show that ICE is Geo Group’s largest customer.

The continued existence and operation of these private prison companies is not only a political issue, but a deeply moral one as well as their coordination with ICE continues to become more of a hot button issue. Now is most definitely the time to have a serious conversation about what it means to publicly fund private organizations that are financially motivated to incarcerate human beings. While America’s insistence that we’re the leader of the free world has always been controversial to say the least, that idea is absolutely laughable as long as this type of behavior continues to exist, and it’s time for our politicians to acknowledge that.

An election cycle is a time when more people than ever are paying attention to and examining the issues that affect them, their communities, and the country at large, and any politician seeking to end private prisons would do well to take advantage of that opportunity. It is well beyond the time for our elected officials to engage in serious efforts to put a stop to these organizations, and this can start with our 2020 democratic presidential candidates.

Being vocal and active in the efforts to end private prison contracts would not only be a strong moral stand on the part of our candidates, but it would be a smart political move as well. Any candidate to come out strongly against them and make this one of their campaign’s central issues would almost certainly garner a strong basis of support among the democratic base. Calls for criminal justice reform are growing louder by the day, and I want our 2020 candidates to lead the effort in ending what is arguably the most deeply immoral aspect of the entire criminal justice system.

Written by

Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at or Twitter @xlauren_mx

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store