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Private prison populations grew faster than prison populations overall
A study of the statistics from the Department of Justice shows private prison populations are increasing five times faster than prisons overall.

Private Prison Populations Growing Faster than Prisons Overall

The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocacy group, recently released a short study on privately-owned prisons in the U.S. One of the most striking facts documented by the study, Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons, was that in the first 16 years of this century, the number of inmates held by private prison companies has grown by 47%, while the overall prison population has climbed by just 9%.

Drawing on Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics, the study shows that in 2000, only 87,369 inmates were held in private prisons, but by 2016 that number had climbed to 128,063. In comparison, the total inmate population in federal and state prisons during the same period rose only from about 1.38 million to slightly over 1.5 million.

The study also reveals that while both federal and some state correctional systems use private prisons, federal use has been increasing at a significantly faster pace (120%) during the same period that has the increase in their overall use in the 27 states which employ private prisons, from 71,845 to 94,164 (a 31% hike).

Federal inmates in private facilities now make up an 8.5% share of the total federal and state inmate population, making the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) the single largest customer of private prisons. Not all these federal prisoners are in prisons, however; about 37% of those covered by contracts with private firms are in halfway houses or under monitored home custody (two growth areas already targeted by some private prison firms). Private facilities also hold immigration detainees for the Department of Homeland Security, but those persons are not included in the BOP numbers.

Late in President Obama’s second term, the DOJ announced it planned to phase out the use of private prisons over a five-year period. But soon after the Trump Administration arrived, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy and committed the agency to continue using private prisons.

On the state side, private prisons have been housing inmates since 1985, when Texas became the first state to contract with a private prison. Today, 27 states have private prison contracts, while 23 don’t; District of Columbia inmates are regarded as remaining in federal custody.

The degree to which states use private prisons varies widely. Ten states place at least a quarter of their inmates with private prisons. The highest percentages are in New Mexico (43%) and Montana (38%); Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Hawaii have rates in the mid-20s; and Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Vermont, and New Jersey round out the top 10, with rates ranging from 19.6% to 13.7%. During the 16 years covered by the study, eight states dropped private prison use, and five adopted it.

No fan of private prisons, the Sentencing Project offered some recommendations in its new study, calling for states and the federal government to terminate those contracts, require greater disclosure of private prison records, and stop sending inmates to prisons far from their homes.

The report also disputed claims that private prisons provide comparable levels of service at lower prices than do public prisons, pointing to other studies which contradict those claims or find them unproven. It concludes with brief profiles of five states’ experience with private prisons.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or "the hole." While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner. A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation's most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch,,, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,, 88.9 WERS' award-winning "You Are Here" radio segment, and The Examiner. Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine,, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News. He established three websites:,, and, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners. Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor's Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University's MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney. Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. "We can't let the past define us," he says. "We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be."

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