Human Interest: The high cost of private prisons

Winn Correctional’s switch from private to public opens a new chapter in the incarceration industry

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

Winn Correctional Center opened its doors 25 years ago as the first privately-run medium security prison in America. And, soon, its life cycle as one of the country’s oldest for-profit facilities will come to an end, when the handoff from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is completed. For the first time in the facility’s history, a new ability to scrutinize its inner workings will exist. Until then, Winn Correctional, just like all privately-run prisons, will maintain its legal right to secrecy.

Private prisons in America hold 150,000 of America’s incarcerated population. They were born of Reagan-era privatization policies and lauded as a quick, cost-effective way to build and staff facilities. They only operate in some states but are popular with agencies of the federal government.

These major corporations are publicly-traded–albeit as real estate investment trusts (aka REITs, making them something like glorified hotels). These are businesses, they’re run as such, and that affords them certain privileges – like keeping their books closed. Sure, “trade secrets” protection serves a reasonable purpose much of the time, but there’s a case to be had that when the commodity is human bodies, some exception should be made. Private prisons hold over a hundred thousand individual lives in effective black boxes.

Before Winn, private operators dabbled in minimum-security and juvenile offenders, but with its opening the idea expanded to encompass higher security and local jail inmates. That a profit is made is but a happy side-effect of its true benefit: government cost savings. Private prisons make money and they save money. At least that’s the theory.

Back in early 2001, the Department of Justice issued a report, “Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons,”, based on its study of prison privatization. “[I]t was discovered that, rather than the projected 20-percent savings, the average saving from privatization was only about 1 percent,” the report says, “and most of that was achieved through lower labor costs.”

Nonetheless, the government decided it needed help housing a growing inmate population. Private prison corporations got their own shots-in-the-arm and they lined up to take them. With no need to maneuver the hoops of the government procurement process or dole out federal benefits, the government has contracted out its responsibilities to the great profit of private operators.

But it remains difficult to ascertain just what lessons the government should be learning from the entities it’s trusted to do their job better than it can; the extent to which profits are being made from extras–inmate fees, communications commissions, inmate labor, etc–also remains in the dark.

We do know that millions of dollars have been poured into elections and lobbying to in order to make private operators an integral part of many state Departments of Correction and the immigrant detention machine. It’s difficult to quantify the effect that private interest can have on the systems for the public good, like criminal justice. But, in Louisiana, for example, where Winn shares the honor of being one of just two major state private prisons, dozens of locally-incentivized lock-ups have created so many mini-economies and a monstrous prison population - the highest per capita of any state in the country with the highest per capita in the world.

Which is why an eyebrow might be raised at the fact that a place like Correction Corp’s Winn Correctional averages about one grievance per prisoner a year. The majority of those, about 60 percent, are regarding issues of time computation, according to an LA DOC representative — implying it would be worse if they involved assaults or medical care. But concerns about time computation become more curious when there’s an incentive to keeping low maintenance prisoners for as long as possible.

In Florida, the DOC head caught flak for and then backtracked from a remark validating concerns that private operators “cherrypick” the least costly offenders; unfortunately, attempts to substantiate the frequency of transfers in and out of prisons have been met with confusing explanations about out-dated contract clauses and inaccessible data.

In fact, across the South, lawyers with GEO Group, in particular, have become actively involved with the handling of public records requests. It’s an atypical occurrence in the public records process to be redirected when asking agencies for records related to their contractors, but in this case the agency employers simply don’t maintain or have access to them.

In Florida, the corporation reserves the right to charge for responding to records requests. In Texas, they’ve provided pages of arguments for why per diem rates and staffing plans should be withheld from the public. At the Alexandria Transfer Center, an inadvertent follow-up resulted in a frustrated response from the agency’s lawyer, who wanted to make it clear that GEO, not he, handles these matters.

However, GEO’s lawyer generously provided the agreement by which LaSalle Economic Development District’s receives a handsome fee each month to handle administrative issues related to the contract. There’s no clear indication of what that covers, but, presumably, dealing with the public was not a stipulation.

The fee is something of a reward for LEDD, which actually acts as the middleman between the Feds and the corporation, a not uncommon way to fast track a new project and a solid way to gain the support in which it operates. With financial influence in most of their heavily-populated states, private prisons have either been or had the ears of legislators, lawyers, and law enforcement for years, even as public opinion has questioned its benefits and the data (or lack thereof) that’s used to support them.

So, in Everything’s-For-Sale America, corporations are entitled to their privacy in a way that individuals only imagine anymore - even if those individuals are actively being detained in that world. In the wake of transitions like Winn’s, it will be important to consider the human cost of their “trade secrets.” Unfortunately, doing so has a dollar cost, too.


Over the past year, MuckRock has been filing nationwide requests for the hard materials that connect the powers-that-be to their parasites. It’s as much about what we can know as what we can’t know. And it requires putting money behind requests and feet on the ground.

That’s why MuckRock is taking the opportunity to launch its first project page with the Private Prison Project - a place to gather, contextualize, and follow the requests and stories that will help provide the data and dirt to have a real conversation.

Here’s how you can help.

Crowdfund the The Private Prison Project

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The Private Prison Project is an effort to use public records laws around the country to draw attention to the gaps and blocks in accountability around the for-profit detention industry. By contributing, you’ll be helping us fund fees and release records to policy makers, journalists, lawyers, and curious individuals nationwide.

Backed by Kevin Pierce, Michael Morisy, Annette Heist, carolina guerrero, and 98 others.

$4,285.00 raised out of $10,000.00.

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