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Private Prisons vs. Public Prisons: Inmate Perspectives and Rehabilitative Effectiveness

Private Prisons vs. Public Prisons: Inmate Perspectives and Rehabilitative Effectiveness


Recidivism rates in the American prisons have continued to increase in spite of various reforms that have been implemented. Among these initiatives, there is the privatization of prisons with the aim of reducing the high congestion in public prisons. However, both private and public prisons aim at changing the prisoners and creating individuals who able to re-entry the society. The rehabilitation programs in the private and public prisons are the basis, within which the prisoners are changed; however, the success of these programs vary depending on the nature, scope, and resources availability. Evidently, while private and public prisons are created with the goal of rehabilitating the prisoners, the results obtained vary significantly.

Keywords: recidivism, rehabilitation, business, programs, inmate, resources


The aim of prisons is to ensure that societal rules are enforced through the implementation of punitive and rehabilitative processes. Prisons are required to preserve the safety of the general population while picking the most effective punitive sentences to various offenders. However, rehabilitation of offenders is a critical outcome that the prisons are expected to reach, which aims at reducing the high rates of recidivism and changing the offenders into the law abiding citizens. However, usually, the most important element of both private and state-run prisons are ignored. This aspect is the prisoners themselves. When comparing the two types of prisons, the most import issue should always be a prisoner and the effectiveness of the rehabilitative services offered to him or her.

The paper investigates into the qualitative and quantitative dynamics of private prisons vs. public prison with a focus on the availability of rehabilitative programs offered to the private prison inmates as compared to the inmates in public prisons. Moreover, it studies whether there are any connections with the recidivism rates based on the availability or lack thereof in the rehabilitative programs in the private prisons.


It is estimated that the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world (Gaines & Miller, 2006). However, while the prisoners return to the society after serving their prison terms, a significant percent of the released either repeat the same offends, for which they were jailed, or commit the new crimes (Gaes, Camp, Nelson, & Saylor, 2004). It is evident that, though the number of the prisoner rehabilitation programs in both public and private prisons have succeeded in rehabilitating and educating offenders, a significant number of prisons are yet to achieve tangible results. Therefore, usually, both types act as the holding facilities for prisoners waiting for their jail term to end.

The initial aim is to protect the public against any criminal acts that can cause any harm or injury (Peak, 2012). Therefore, the prisons should not only act as the punitive institutions but also integrate educative, rehabilitative, and re-entry programs that ensure that the released prisoners do not repeat their crimes again. In essence, both private and public prisons should eliminate the persistent cycle of committing the crimes by offenders, their arrest, sentencing, release, and repeating the process.

A significant number of prisons in the United States are private institutions that operate on the behalf of the department of corrections. Though these prisons are private business entities, they are subject to oversight by the departments of justice and corrections (Gaines & Miller, 2006). The development of rehabilitation programs in private prisons is business-oriented since the companies that own private prisons are more concerned with the profit instead of the prisoner rehabilitation. The private prisons include Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC), which can accommodate over 85,000 prisoners (Gaines & Miller, 2006).

On the one hand, the duty of the public prisons is to ensure the due rehabilitative process through the integration of various programs that address the unique needs of each prisoner. Particularly, public prisons have placed an emphasis on the factors that motivate the inmates to commit crimes. These programs feature different  psychosocial tests and exercises, educational programs and development of technical skills that can enable the prisoners acquire competitive skills to be used once they are released. Since public prisons are a subject to examination and scrutiny by the public and various vested institutions in terms of the prisoners’ well-being, they provide the rehabilitation process, procedures, and treatment of prisoners in accordance with the official policies and standards.

Factors that Influence Rehabilitation of Prisoners

Accountability is the key element in the public prisons since there are more controls that ensure that the rehabilitation of the inmates is prioritized (Gaes et al., 2004). In essence, these controls that are under public purview are intended as a strategic measure that seeks to protect the prisoner’s rights and provide rehabilitation. In addition, the scrutiny subjected to public prisons by various watchdogs including the department of justice, human rights groups, and various correctional oversight bodies ensure that the prisoners are not mistreated. In such a manner, all prisoners are treated in accordance with the constitutional provisions; their rights cannot be violated by their punitive sentence (Featherman, Thornton, & Correnti, 2001).

On the other hand, private prisons are business entities that stand to benefit from the increased number of prisoners. Private prisons receive compensation from the state, in order to cover their operational costs; therefore, in these businesslike model, prisoners are considered a profit-making product. Therefore, while a number of private prisons have implemented comprehensive programs that ensure that the prisoners are provided with the holistic rehabilitation, most of them have not invested in the effective rehabilitation initiatives (Featherman et al., 2001). The rehabilitation of prisoners in private prisons is perceived as a poor business decision. Since the inmates are compared to the customers in conventional businesses, rehabilitation means getting rid of the customer; consequently, the future of the business is endangered.

The integration of the profit concept in the rehabilitation of prisoners in the private prisons limits the extent, to which the inmates are educated and rehabilitated, in order to be ready to re-entry into the society (Gaes et al., 2004). The resources that can rehabilitate inmates are diverted to job creation and stimulation of local economies, within which the private prisons are located. Consequently, private prisons act as the holding institutions that benefit from the increased recidivism rates. Therefore, instead of focusing on the prison programs that can help the released prisoners not to return to the prison, companies that run and own private prisons are more concerned with creating better and bigger prison facilities that can hold larger numbers of the inmates. It makes a business sense for such private prisons to focus on the expansion instead of rehabilitation.

The rehabilitation of prisoners is an ongoing process that is conducted within and outside the prison once the inmate is released (Phelps, 2011). Therefore, the rehabilitation costs continue being incurred through external programs that ensure that the released prisoners integrate into society and are provided with the continued support to prevent them from recidivism. Since these costs of enforcing both internal and external programs are significant, private prisons usually focus on enforcing only the internal programs. Meanwhile, public prisons implement both internal and external rehabilitation programs in partnership with the community-based groups. This strategy develop social structures and foundation, within which the released prisoners can re-integrate into society and be provided with job opportunities, including facilitation of guidance and counselling programs that help them cope and adapt to the environment outside the prison (Phelps, 2011).

Public prisons have the benefit of the due process since the inmate rehabilitation programs are systematic and are implemented after comprehensive review of the issues that influence distinct criminal behavior, attitudes, and motivators. In addition, social and economic factors that contribute towards criminal behavior are integrated as a part of the rehabilitation program with the aim of enabling the inmates to cope with similar challenges without resorting to crime. The institutional structures of public prisons make them perfect for the rehabilitation of prisons since they are overseen by the federal and state justice systems. In essence, these oversight bodies help in the development of rehabilitation strategies, rules, and regulations including different incarceration policies for the rehabilitation of prisoners (Gaines & Miller, 2006).

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Though the management and operational procedures of public and private prisons have distinct differences, the two prison systems are equally accountable to the public. However, private prisons are product-oriented ones; the quality of their rehabilitation procedures focuses more on the services being delivered rather than the impacts of such services on the inmate. Effective rehabilitation of prisoners requires the prison programs to influence the behavior and attitudes of prisoners.

The federal and state governments may demand private prisons to meet the designed standards and requirements in the incorporated prisoner rehabilitation programs. Since these programs may be a conditional requirement for approval, the private prisons may implement such programs with the aim of pretending to meet all the expectations (Gaes et al., 2004). However, the business aspect of the private prison will always ensure that the rehabilitation program are implemented as a procedural requirement but not as a system to cause changes in the behavior of the inmates.

The operational distinction between the public and private prisons is illustrated by their goals in terms of rehabilitation. Since private prisons are an extension of the prison system, they are mandated to observe statutory requirements, laws, and standards of practice with initial aim of enhancing and safeguarding the well-being of the inmates. Evidently, there are significant managerial differences between the  private and public prisons that can be attributed to the accessibility of resources (Featherman et al., 2001). The prison rehabilitation programs require funding and allocation of qualified humanpower in order to ensure that the programs are delivered professionally and in accordance with the expected standards. The challenge for public prisons is the inadequate financing as a result of constrained budgetary allocations by the federal and state governments.

Policy Implications and Funding

Contrary to the private prisons that have adequate resources, public prisons face the challenge of financing that has made it difficult to implement the rehabilitation programs for prisoners. This situation has caused the ineffectiveness of the rehabilitation strategies that, in turn, have led to the increased rates of recidivism. Since public prisons are underfunded, they are unable to implement effective approaches and strategies for the management of prisoners (Blakely, 2007). In addition, the increased prison populations have caused congestion in prisons and escalation of the inmate behavior and attitudes. Furthermore, the prison staff including the guards are overstretched and unable to manage various challenges of the prisons effectively. These challenges have caused public prisons to be unable in enforcing rehabilitative procedures.

Essentially, the prison system faces a crisis that requires comprehensive reform beginning at the policy development level. However, the reform initiatives have faced various challenges including the altered public perception regarding the American penal system, the economic downturn, and changing political environments (Gaes et al., 2004). The overcrowding in prisons has allowed prisoners to interact freely with the minor offenders who are encouraged to commit grave crimes when released.

In addition, the lack of effective management and allocation of resources in public prisons have led to the establishment of criminal networks and gangs within the facilities, whose influence extends far beyond the prison walls. These issues make modern prisons institution where offenders learn new criminal behavior and develop skills and attitudes that influence their actions once released. The objective of rehabilitation public prisons is to prevent future crimes; however, the prevalent conditions in the American public prisons have only contributed towards escalating the future crime rates given the high rates of recidivism that are recorded today (Featherman et al., 2001).

Meanwhile, private prisons have adequate resources at their disposal since they are run as the business entities that are assessed on the basis of their performance in rehabilitating and accommodating the inmates, as well as preventing the development of criminal networks or gangs within their facilities. Significantly, private prisons can hire enough humanpower in order to manage all the needs of prisoners. In addition, the prison workers such as guards have increasingly flexible working hours including varied benefits and bonuses such as the overtime payment (Gaes et al., 2004).

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These facts motivate the vigilance among the prison staff that ensures that the inmates are kept in check. The rehabilitation programs in private prisons are well-funded and equipped even though the outcomes of such programs vary depending on their delivery and initial objectives of the program managers. The fact that the private prisons have far better chances of accessing resources as compared to the public prisons gives them the ability to manage their programs effectively. In addition, they can even save since the state and federal government compensate for their operational costs (Gaes et al., 2004).

The issues that emerge in the rehabilitation of prisoners in the private prisons include the issues regarding the safety, privacy, and psychological well-being of the inmates in such prisons. There have been reported various instances of the guards in private prisons being accused of taking advantage of the inmates or abusing them including juvenile individuals. Since the guards are not state or federal government employees, they are not bound by the ethical or regulatory provisions imposed in the public prisons. Therefore, the management of prison staff in private prisons is essential in preventing any abuse incidents. However, some of the guards that are hired in such prisons may not be easy to control; consequently, such prisoner abuse cases often result in the prison riots.

The abuse of prisoners does not amount to the rehabilitative procedures but contributes to the escalation of existing criminal behavior problems or development of the new criminal tendencies. Prisoner rehabilitation in the private prisons may take extreme measures with the aim of deterring the other inmates from repeating behavior that is considered unacceptable. The inmates in private prisons have already lost their freedom as a consequence of their criminal actions; therefore, the objective of private prisons should not subject the inmates to further suffering but rather establish effective approaches towards their rehabilitation.

Though both private and public prisons have access to funding, the amount of costs for the rehabilitation purposes vary from state to state depending on the budgetary allocations and availability of others sources of funds (Featherman et al., 2001). In some cases, private investors incur the costs of building the prison facilities and rent them out for the correction purposes; however, these prisons are easily filled as a result of the challenges facing the justice system and high incarceration rates including those of the minor offenders. The key issues that emerge in the privately run prisons concerns the accountability, oversight, and management of these prisons. Since private prisons are expected to rehabilitate the prisoners, they should be held accountable with the outcomes of their rehabilitation programs (Gaes et al., 2004). In addition, a state or federal government oversight body should be able to monitor and assess the programs, which have been implemented, in order to determine their authenticity, reliability and effectiveness in deriving the expected results.

Drug Abuse and Mental Health

Drug abuse and mental health are among the factors that have been attributed to causing criminal behavior and a high number of offenders. Since the criminal justice system is responsible for the development and implementation of the rehabilitation programs, it has not succeeded in achieving this goal especially in the public prisons. The inadequate resources allocation to public prisons makes it difficult for the prison management to implement the comprehensive drug abuse rehabilitation programs. In addition, in the case of some inmates, mental illnesses have contributed to their criminal behavior. It is the duty of the justice system to ensure that such inmates are comprehensively rehabilitated before being released to the public (Blakely, 2007). However, it rarely occurs since the rehabilitation programs are a subject to various limitations including inadequate finances and lack of humanpower.

Meanwhile, a number of private prisons have partnered with various drug rehabilitation centers and mental illness institutions. This strategy has enabled the private prisons to provide holistic rehabilitation of the inmates with the drug abuse issues or mental illnesses. Unlike public prisons that require numerous bureaucracies, private prisons are concerned with the operation costs and potential returns (Blakely, 2007). Since the inmate rehabilitation costs are compensated by the state and federal government, private prisons ensure that all issues of rehabilitation are addressed.

A number of rehabilitative programs for the inmates with the substance abuse have been implemented in public prisons; however, they are incapable of offering personalized rehabilitation to the inmates. Essentially, these rehabilitation programs take the form of group therapies where the inmates are treated as a group while neglecting the individual issues that have motivated the drug abuse or development of the mental illness. Since such treatment is largely ineffective, once the inmates are released, they have a higher chance of abusing substances and committing crimes again in order to satisfy their need for drugs.

Meanwhile, rehabilitation programs of behavioral modification that integrate the community participation are often less effective because of the failed support systems and inadequate humanpower for the coordination of the behavior reinforcement process. Though the community-based organizations have support systems that offer guidance and counseling, follow-ups by the prisons psychotherapists is essential in order to ensure comprehensive behavior modification (Featherman et al., 2001). However, prison staff-inmate ratio is significantly high; consequently, once a prisoner leaves the prison facility, the next contact with the prison therapist would only occur if he or she re-offend and is sentenced again. These issues are not limited to public prisons but are applicable to private prisons, which focus on reducing the costs and increasing the revenues.


It is evident that the availability or unavailability of rehabilitation programs in prisons or lack thereof contributes to the recidivism rates in both private and public prisons. The high recidivism rates have led to a significant increase in the number of prisoners that made it difficult for the public facilities to manage the prison populations effectively. Therefore, the establishment of private prisons has been necessary to aid in the management and rehabilitation of criminals. However, the recidivism rates have continued to increase though they vary depending on the effectiveness of the implemented rehabilitation programs in addressing individual issues that encourage the inmates to re-offend.

Significant differences emerge in the management, nature, and scope of rehabilitation programs in both public and private prisons; however, the expected outcomes are similar in both types of prisons. It is evident that significant reforms are needed to ensure that the inmates are comprehensively rehabilitated and the recidivism rates are reduced significantly.

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