What happens when you take a jail full of convicts and hand over the keys to a private, for-profit corporation? As Virginia is finding out, the result is not better prison management—or even cost savings. It’s abuse.

Prisons in the U.S. serve two purposes: to contain violent criminals and keep them out of society, and to reform as many convicts as possible so they become productive citizens. Historically, this has been the job of our government, a natural extension of law enforcement which exists to protect our society. In recent years government has followed a disturbing trend, however, by outsourcing its prisons to lowest-bid contractors, essentially taking a public service and turning it into a feeding frenzy for companies whose sole interest is profit. The easiest way to do that, they quickly find out, is to treat prisoners worse and make sure they stay longer.

The Rise of Private Prisons

Once, private prisons were nearly unheard of. In the 1980s two factors began to change that. First, incarceration rates were rising dramatically, due in large part to the increased crackdown on illegal drugs. But at the same there was increasing public outcry over prison costs, which made it hard for many states to expand their prisons to accommodate all the new inmates. By the early ’90s, over 100,000 inmates would be outsourced to private companies.

The initial attraction to private jails was an alleged cost savings. Proponents of privatization claimed that private jails could save taxpayers up to 20 percent on the cost of incarcerating an inmate. According to theDepartment of Justice, the reality does not live up to the promise. Per-prisoner savings have been at most 1 percent, and, due to aggressive lobbying by the prison industry, overall prison costs may have actually gone up.

In Virginia, one of the state’s largest prisons, the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, has been outsourced to the GEO Group Corporation, one of the nation’s most profitable and notorious prison companies.

Abuses in the Private Prison System

When a prison is run by a profit-driven corporation, there is an inherent conflict of interest. Essential programs and the basic rights that prisoners are entitled to cost money, and contractors curtail them as much as they can. Additionally, private prisons have a long leash in how they treat individual prisoners, often with no way for prisoners to appeal their decisions. Here are a few of the abuses that have been documented in Virginia and nationwide.


Providing a safe, humane environment is not the top priority for profit-seeking contractors. Guards at these institutions face all the same daily pressures as federal and state guards, but often with less experience, less training and a very high turnover rate. The result is a pattern of beatings, abuse and miserable conditions that has been repeated in private prisons nationwide.

Virginia’s own prison magnate, GEO Group, was thrown out of Mississippi in 2012 after a federal judge found “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world”—including repeated sexual abuse of juveniles and severe beatings.

Poor healthcare

Unsurprisingly, one of the most costly aspects of prison administration is providing proper healthcare to all prisoners, which is required by law. Private prisons frequently skimp on healthcare costs by providing irregular or insufficient care to inmates, or even by refusing care requests altogether.

These problems have been particularly rampant in Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly conducted a study on healthcare during the Commonwealth’s first experiment with privatization (DOJ, page 33), and found it to be a “failure.” Inmates received vastly inconsistent care, treatments were not documented, and life-saving equipment was allowed to gather dust when it malfunctioned rather than being repaired. Perhaps most gravely, the contractor involved did not abide by the terms of the contract and costs ballooned 50 percent over budget, indicating there was no benefit in outsourcing the care in the first place.

More Prisoners Serving Longer Sentences

GEO’s contract in Virginia has what’s known as an “occupancy requirement.” The Commonwealth agreed to make sure GEO’s privately operated prison is kept at least95 percent full at all times—regardless of current crime rates. That means the state is obligated to keep using a third-party provider even when it has less need to do so (and paying for the privilege), and the state is pressured to maximize incarceration rates.

That’s not the only kind of pressure private prisons exert. Across the industry, they prefer to see more people put in jail for longer periods of time, because each prisoner is a windfall. That has led to an intense lobbying effort by prison corporations, which has corresponded with rising incarceration rates.

Prison firms have indirect influence over parole hearings as well. Parole boards nearly always consider the number of infractions a convict has committed in prison—“good behavior” or bad—and these infractions are handed out by the private prisons’ private guards. And by restricting programs that help give prisoners job skills and education, private jails nudge down the rate of rehabilitation, ensuring a steady supply of “customers.”

Dirty Business

Taken together, these problems paint a picture of a prison system that is costly, ineffective, and predatory. The Commonwealth of Virginia continues to pay a price tag of $29,000 per inmate a year, and the numbers aren’t going down. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world—higher than China, Russia or Iran—whether measured in total prisoners or percent of population.

Are there alternatives? Yes, but they don’t involve reforming private prisons. As long as profit-driven companies are given custody of human beings, there will always be a conflict of interest between human rights and the bottom line. More likely solutions include returning to publicly run prisons, limiting the lobbying activities of prison corporations, and fighting prison costs through lower incarceration rates—something that is easily achievable with parole, community service and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders.

Despite the repeated failures of our private prisons, Virginia continues to look at prison firms with the hope of saving money. But our prison crisis, and its price tag, cannot be solved by outsourcing. Is the treatment of confined human beings something we want to entrust to profiteers? How can we trust prison managers to treat convicts fairly if they’re lobbying to keep them longer? And why do we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation on Earth?