The United States has the largest prison population of more than 2 million and the highest prison population rate of 629 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants.
Driven by a motive to seek profits, a system originally designed for rehabilitation has become "big business" that thrives on violations of the human rights of migrants and minorities, said a Mexican expert in strategic studies, referring to private prisons in the United States.
Private prisons were founded in the 1980s to make up for bed shortages in federal and state ones. The U.S. government pays private prison management companies for each inmate, so the more prisoners, the higher the earnings, said Raul Benitez Manaut, a professor at the Center for Research on North America at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
This money-making endeavor has been supported by what he calls the U.S. "iron fist" policy on street crime, which for the past 30 years has "given the police incentives to send more people to prison for minor crimes, in collusion with prosecutors and judges." Prison privatization in the U.S., on the rise in the last three decades, has adulterated the essence of the prison system by turning it into business whose profitability relies on the number of inmates.
The U.S. has the largest prison population of more than 2 million and the highest prison population rate of 629 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the latest data from the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research at the School of Law of Birkbeck of University of London. Low-income groups and ethnic minorities are the main victims of the police and judicial practices feeding private prisons.
Black and Latino Americans were incarcerated at about 5 times and 1.3 times respectively the rate of white Americans, according to the U.S. News and World Report in October 2021. "The Black population is larger than the white one in U.S. prisons because many Afro-descendants do not have the money to pay for a lawyer and avoid jail," said Benitez, adding that "judges normally favor the white population, and often punish the Black and Latino population, so those are human rights violations."
The rise in undocumented migrants heading to the U.S. has benefited owners of private detention centers, as they receive money for each migrant held, and employ detainees as extremely cheap labor. The criminalization of immigration has contributed to the high number of people behind bars, and many migrants are held in detention centers operated by private companies, where their human rights are violated or limited.
As of September 2021, 79 percent of people detained each day in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody were held in private detention facilities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The GEO Group and CoreCivic are the two largest owners, managers and operators of private prisons in the United States, with combined revenue in 2020 of more than US$4 billion.
The companies are also large donors to political campaigns, such as that of former U.S. President Donald Trump, and hire firms to lobby for their interests among lawmakers and in the upper echelons of U.S. power.
Benitez said that government officials, from the local and regional levels and up, and operators of private prisons benefit from the current system, with which in mind the federal government "cannot and does not want to" eradicate prison privatization. "It's a vicious circle."