The private prison industry’s major companies are upbeat thanks to a surge of business from federal agencies seeking to house criminals and detained aliens, the Associated Press reports. Since 2000, the number of federal inmates in private prisons and halfway houses has increased by two-thirds to more than 24,000. Thousands more detainees not convicted of crimes are confined in for-profit facilities, which hold 14 percent of all federal prisoners, compared with under 6 percent of state inmates.
Critics, including prisoners rights groups and corrections officer unions, contend the policy amounts to a federal bailout of an industry that would otherwise be struggling with a checkered record. The firms and the government say they provide a flexible, economical alternative to building new federal prisons. “If the Bureau of Prisons is going to build capacity for themselves, they have to plan eight years in advance,” said John Ferguson of Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest company in the field. “It takes a lot longer in the public sector than private sector to get things done.” CCA teetered near bankruptcy before new federal contracts helped it rebound. Since 2000, the Nashville, Tn.-based company has doubled its number of federal prisoners to 18,200, 29 percent of its overall inmate population. “The federal government smiled on them just in time,” said Judith Greene, a prison-policy analyst. Business is certain to grow. The number of federal inmates is expected to rise from 185,000 to 226,000 by 2010, with private companies likely to be relied on for housing non-citizen immigrants convicted of federal crimes.