President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week that directs the Justice Department to end the use of private prisons.

This effort is part of the Biden Administration’s push for racial equity to fight systemic racism.

In his remarks, President Biden chided private prisons for “profiteering off of incarcerating — incarceration that is less humane and less safe, as the studies show.”

Are private prisons driving mass incarceration in the U.S.?

According to the White House Fact Sheet on Biden’s actions to advance racial equity:  

Mass incarceration imposes significant costs on our society and communities, while private prisons profiteer off of federal prisoners in less safe conditions for prisoners and correctional officers alike. President Biden is committed to reducing mass incarceration while making our communities safer. That starts with ending DOJ’s reliance on private prisons.

False. Completely make believe.

This is a myth about private prisons. They are not driving mass incarceration in the U.S. nor are they the root cause.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.4 million adults were incarcerated in 2019, 175,000 in federal facilitates and 1.26 million in state facilities. 

Privately-operated facilities held just 8 percent (116,000) of all imprisoned Americans. That includes 7 percent of state prisoners (88,000) and 16 percent of federal prisoners (27,000). Americans held in private prisons actually fell from 2018 to 2019 by 2 percent for state facilities and 1 percent for federal facilities. 

Some states utilize private prisons more than others. Five states housed more than 20 percent of their prison population in private facilities: Montana (47 percent), New Mexico (36 percent), Tennessee (29 percent), Oklahoma (25 percent), and Hawaii (24 percent).

Nonetheless, we would expect private prisons to imprison more Americans if they were indeed driving mass incarceration. 

Impact on mass incarceration

This EO will likely have little impact on reducing the number of incarcerated individuals. It will only affect a tiny portion of all incarcerated Americans (those in federal custody) and a small portion of those federal inmates in privately-held facilities. By ending the use of private prisons, current and future inmates will likely be shuffled elsewhere, but not necessarily out of the criminal justice system.

Americans support Washington and states in implementing needed reforms to our criminal justice system. The Biden administration has hinted that they plan to take future actions, but this order alone is not going to do much to end mass incarceration. 

A note about private prisons

Despite the abundant, harsh criticism of private prisons, there are good reasons why the federal government and states employ them. 

Private facilities have shown promise in reducing recidivism, an important goal for criminal justice.

Prisons can be costly to run, but private facilities can implement cost-savings measures, pursue efficiencies and negotiate for the best prices leading to cost savings for taxpayers.

Local communities benefit from the economic stimulus of new jobs to construct, operate, and support the facilities as well as tax revenue that employment brings.

Private facilities may also be used for purposes other than housing prisoners including immigration detention centers.

My colleague Charlotte Whelan visited a private prison facility and detailed her experience, which all-in-all seemed more positive than negative.