Difference Between Public and Private Prisons


Much controversy surrounds public and private prisons. Local, state, or federal governments own and operate public prisons. The law requires public prisons to make certain information public because taxpayer money funds them. Almost all prisons were public up until the 1980s.

A third party owns and operates a private prison, and the government contracts it. The government pays a monthly rate depending on how many people are in the prison. Third party owners often avoid more costly cases such as people with medical issues, mental health issues, dietary restrictions, and violent offenders, as they would require more prison personnel.

Also known as contract prisons, or for-profit prisons, these facilities developed in efforts to remedy overcrowding in public prison facilities. These prisons generally house male adult inmates, undocumented immigrants, and those nearing the conclusion of their sentences. Private prisons hold almost 23,00 federal inmates, or 12% of the Bureau of Prison’s total population.


One report analyzed data from 14 private prisons and 14 public prisons to compare incident frequency in eight areas:

  1. Reports of incidents
  2. Sexual misconduct
  3. Contraband
  4. Telephone monitoring
  5. Inmate discipline
  6. Lockdowns
  7. Selected grievances
  8. Urinalysis drug testing

Aside from sexual misconduct and drug testing, private prisons showed higher numbers of incidents per capita. Private prisons also found eight times the amount of contraband cell phones in public prisons in the study. Private prisons also displayed higher comparative rates of assault, between inmates and involving inmates and staff. The Department of Justice made visits to three private prisons, each of which it cited for safety or security issues.


A large difference between public and private prisons is the level and quality of security. Before the popularity of private prisons in the United States, many people believed that private prisons would offer more safety and higher security than a public prison. Research has shown, however, that the opposite is true. Private prisons have 49% more attacks on security guards than public prisons and 65% more assaults between inmates.

Private prisons are more violent because of their limited security. Private prisons accept less violent and threatening prisoners, assuming that prisoners without violent tendencies will not engage in violent behavior while incarcerated. Operating on the assumption of a safer environment with fewer prisoners with violent tendencies, private prison owners tend to staff the prison with fewer guards.


Isolation, also referred to as solitary confinement, occurs when guards separate an inmate from other inmates for threatening others or him or herself. The law requires public prisons to release information on the number of inmates placed in isolation each year. Private prisons are not required to share the same information with the public. The secrecy of private prisons raises the concern that they may be subjecting too many people to isolation, which guards may assign unfairly.


Advocates of privatizing prisons claim that private prisons are much more cost-effective than public prisons. However, research has shown that may not be true. Private prisons avoid accepting inmates who would cost the prison more, so the savings are inflated. More assaults and attacks occur in private prisons, which result in added costs.