Private Prisons: Low-Cost Methods With High Consequences
June 19, 2014 | Christopher Petrella, Ph.D Candidate, University of California, Berkeley
My study, “The Color of Corporate Corrections: Contractual Exemptions and the Overrepresentation of People of Color in Private Prisons,” recently published in Radical Criminology, finds that people of color are overrepresented in prisons controlled by for-profit management companies relative to public facilities of the same security level. This is primarily because private prison firms try to maximize the percentage of low-cost, healthy, and young individuals they contain.
My study, “The Color of Corporate Corrections: Contractual Exemptions and the Overrepresentation of People of Color in Private Prisons,” recently published in Radical Criminology, finds that people of color are overrepresented in prisons controlled by for-profit management companies relative to public facilities of the same security level. This is primarily because private prison firms try to maximize the percentage of low-cost, healthy, and young individuals they contain. Health and age, therefore, together serve as stand-in classification criteria for race without any explicit reference to it. Historical sentencing patterns beginning with the so-called “War on Drugs” have resulted in trends whereby prisoners over the age of 50 are disproportionately “non-Hispanic, white” and prisoners under 50 are disproportionately persons of color.
Generally, the private prison paradigm is based on one premise: meet shareholder expectations by increasing profits and minimizing losses. One of the surest ways to achieve such an objective is to limit the number of high-cost prisoners with chronic health conditions through contract exemptions. This practice tends to result in a prisoner profile that is far younger—and healthier—in private prisons relative to public facilities and therefore ultimately yields an overrepresentation of people of color. Moreover, my research provides an example of the ways in which seemingly “race neutral” or “colorblind” carceral policies continue to have a differential impact on communities of color.
Secondarily, my research poses a direct challenge to the for-profit prison industry’s repeated claims of cost savings and efficiency. Assertions of taxpayer savings are only valid when comparing similar prisoner profiles on a facility-by-facility basis. The striking age (and therefore health) disparity in prisoner populations between public and private facilities itself renders cost-saving comparisons inherently unreliable.
“The Color of Corporate Corrections” has received widespread recognition among criminal justice reform advocates such as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black. It has also received coverage from NPR, Bill Moyers, USA TODAY, Tavis Smiley, Mother Jones, Alternet, San Francisco Chronicle, Business Insider, and a number of other outlets.
Christopher Petrella is a doctoral candidate in African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley and is currently writing a book-length manuscript titled Courts, Contracts, and Corporate Corrections: The Paradox of the Private Prison State. He also codirects a national campaign aimed at bringing transparency and accountability to the for-profit, private corrections industry.
From legislative testimony to community advocacy, Mr. Petrella has collaborated with organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, Harvard Law School’s Institute for Race and Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center, Prison Legal News, Justice Policy Institute, Prison Policy Initiative, and the National Prison Divestment Campaign.
Mr. Petrella serves on the board of Grassroots Leadership, a national organization dedicated to decarceration and the decriminalization of immigrant communities.