While prison facilities are typically a state or federal responsibility, the benefits and challenges they create in surrounding communities are a major concern for many local governments. In recent years, partnering with private contractors for prison building and operations has become increasingly popular for state corrections departments. According to the Department of Justice, private facilities held more than 17 times as many prisoners in 2009 as in 1990, reflecting a major shift in how America approaches incarceration.
Prison contracts vary, but most commonly the local jurisdiction will agree to pay for the construction of a new facility or lease portion of their existing jail to a private facility, which will then contract with the state or federal government to send inmates. In return, the city or county will enjoy a larger tax base and new jobs for local residents. One example of such an agreement is the Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility in Hardin, Mont., which was thrown into the spotlight a few years ago after offering their prison as a place for Guantanamo detainees. The town built the facility for a private company to manage in exchange for the promise of economic benefits. Unfortunately, the firm never received a contract from either the federal or state government, and the project became a major loss for the city. A similar loss occurred in Littlefield, Tex., where a prison was successfully built and run for eight years before one of the partner states stopped sending inmates. This loss was the beginning of the end for the prison, which after a series of inopportune events now stands vacant, straining the local economy.
In recent years more prisons have been built not just for inmates from the correctional system, but also for detaining illegal immigrants. As the number of state prisoners has begun to decline for the first time in decades, state prisons are replacing county jails as detention centers. There are plans for such centers in San Antonio, Tex., Essex County, N.J., Orange County, Calif., and Southwest Ranches, Fla.. Prison plans have been met with much resistance in well-to-do Southwest Ranches, where the prison controversy has created a unique alliance between the city’s more affluent residents and immigrant-rights activists.
There are two companies that dominate the prisons market, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which made $1.7 billion last year, and The GEO Group which made $1.2 billion. They have worked on some of the projects mentioned above, and currently GEO is working to renovate a juvenile correctional facility in Baldwin, Mich. GEO had previously invested in the facility but then pulled out of the project in 2005 leaving it vacant. The hope is that the prison can now be used to house inmates from California.
Read more about handling prison facilities and county jails on the Knowledge Network.
Also, you can view two Knowledge Network questions that were previously asked and answered about municipal jails.