Why Minorities Are Even More Overrepresented In Private Prisons

A new analysis of America’s prison demographics has revealed for-profit prisons jail minorities even more disproportionately than publicly operated prisons.

For-profit prisons — like those operated by
Corrections Corporation of America — use contractual provisions to target young, healthy (and therefore more profitable) inmates, the study in the journal “Radical Criminology” found. And younger prisoners tend to be minorities, due to drastic changes in prison demographics over the last 30 years, the study noted.

While minorities are disproportionately incarcerated in all prisons in America — The Sentencing Project, a reform advocacy group, puts the number for racial and ethnic minorities as high as 60% of those imprisoned — the percentage of minorities in private prisons is often higher than 60% in some states’ private prisons and reaches 89% in California’s private prisons, according to the study recently published in the Journal of Radical Criminology by UC: Berkeley doctoral candidate Christopher Petrella.

Petrella’s study looked at nine states with large private prison populations, including California, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas. Here’s a comparison of public and private incarceration rates in California, which has one of the largest private prison populations due to a notorious overcrowding problem:

And here’s what it looks like for Mississippi:

In the course of his research, Petrella soon discovered why:

I came to find out that through explicit and implicit exemptions written into contracts between these private prison management companies and state departments of correction, many of these privates … write exemptions for certain types of prisoners into their contracts … And, as you can guess, the prisoners they like to house are low-cost prisoners … Those prisoners tend to be younger, and they tend to be much healthier.

The provisions included in private prison contracts do not explicitly mention race but rather reference health and age, allowing prisons to avoid housing prisoners with chronic medical conditions or those with “above average” health care costs.

According to a 2012 report from the ACLU, elderly prisoners today (those over 50 years old) cost prisons $US68,270 a year while non-geriatric prisoners cost prisons $US34,135 a year.

Based on historical sentencing patterns, says Petrella, prisoners over 50 years old are predominantly white. Those prisoners who are in the 20-40 year-old range are far more likely to be black, Hispanic, or any other minority.

The difference in prison demographics stems from The War On Drugs, which has been criticised as targeting minority communities and imposing draconian mandatory minimum sentences. The majority of over-50 prisoners were incarcerated prior to 1980, when the campaign began, the study notes.

Here’s the public versus private comparison for Texas for both minority populations and those over the age of 50. The correlation is striking:

The news that a disproportionate number of minority inmates are in private prisons is potentially disturbing, as for-profit prisons have been accused of cutting corners and abusing prisoners.

Steven Owen, a senior director of public affairs at Corrections Corporation of America (the nation’s largest for-profit prison company), had this to say about Petrella’s report:

This report is deeply flawed. First, CCA’s government partners determine which inmates are sent to our facilities; our company has no role in their selection. Second, the contracts we have with our government partners are mutually agreed upon, and as the customer, our government partners have significant leverage regarding provisions. For example, most of our contracts provide our government partners wide latitude to cancel contracts quickly if they do not see a need for our services. As part of that contracting process, our partners determine how best to manage their expenditures like health care costs, and we work within their needs and preferences. Finally, under longstanding company policy, CCA does not lobby for or in any way promote legislation or policies that determine the basis or duration of an individual’s incarceration.

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