The United States imprisons more people—both per capita and in absolute terms—than any other nation in the world. More than Russia. More than China. More than India. And although few would argue that criminals should be incarcerated, a new trend has emerged that looks at whether guilt and innocence is the real determining factor behind the country’s bulging prisons.

A recent report titled Banking on Bondage, released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), found that as federal and state governments confront enormous fiscal crises, an increasing number are looking at selling off prisons to make money. Private companies are willing to pay top dollar for facilities that are bursting at the seams and, in turn, charge a per-inmate fee to the government.   

The lure of a quick buck has states also looking at building new prisons for the sole purpose of selling to private companies. The report found that little thought is given to criminal justice reform which could reduce the high incarceration rates that impact people of color.

Private prisons for adults were virtually nonexistent until the early 1980s. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for detaining about 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners and, according to the report, nearly half of all immigrants being held on federal charges. The two largest private prison companies received nearly $3 billion in revenue in 2010, and their top executives each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million, according to the report.

The report cites empirical studies that show heightened levels of violence against prisoners in private institutions, a higher rate of staff turnover and an increased number of reports of atrocious living conditions.

This year, advocates of for-profit prisons are attempting to push through privatization plans in numerous states:

Arizona has announced plans to award 5,000 additional prison beds to private contractors, despite a recent statement by the state's auditor general that for-profit imprisonment in Arizona may cost more than incarceration in publicly operated facilities.

Florida, the Department of Corrections attempted to implement the privatization of prisons in 18 counties but was temporarily thwarted by the courts after it was discovered that the state had issued only one request for proposal and was awarding only one contract for all 29 prisons.

Louisiana narrowly defeated a proposal, pushed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, to sell off three state prisons to private companies. But it could be reintroduced.

The federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency intends to create a new network of immigration detention centers, managed largely by private companies in states including New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois.

Read more in the June 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine on page 25.