A “Broken” But Profitable US Prison System

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The United States has five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. Both in raw numbers and by percentage of the population, the US has the largest prison population of any nation. Its prison population has grown 700% since 1970 with the addition of drug crimes, which now account for more than half of those incarcerated in federal prisons. If you count parole, probation, and incarceration one out of every thirty-one Americans is under US corrections custody.

In the past decade, the growing criminalization of immigration has further contributed to this mass incarceration crisis. In 2013, more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions were for unlawfully crossing the border into the US—an act that historically has resulted in deportation, but now is being treated as a criminal act that may result in federal incarceration. Today, more people enter federal prison for immigration offenses than for all other crimes (violent, weapons, and property offenses) combined.

The criminalization of immigration enriches the private prison industry. Once prosecuted, non-citizen federal prisoners are sent to a private prison operated by for-profit companies. Shares of two of the largest private prison firms spiked sharply with news of a contract for unaccompanied migrant children. In response, immigration attorney Barbara Hines observed that private prison firms “have no training in child welfare. They run these detention facilities on a prison incarceration model.”

Despite the private prison industry’s ongoing record of abuse, neglect, and misconduct, the federal Board of Prisons (BOP) fails to subject the private prisons to adequate oversight and accountability. In Michigan, Aramark, a prison food contractor, fed inmates dog food, worms, and even previously discarded food. Despite these revelations, Aramark is still serving food to prisoners. In the words of Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy: “The corrections systems is broken.”


Nicole Flatow, “Private Prison Stocks Soar As Companies Cash In On Incarcerated Immigrants,” Think Progress, September 2, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/09/02/3477866/private-prison-investors-see-profit-in-central-american-migrant-influx/.

Nicole Flatow, “The United States Has the Largest Prison Population In the World-And it’s Growing,” Think Progress, September 17, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/09/17/3568232/the-united-states-had-even-more-prisoners-in-2013/.

Carimah Townes, “Corporation Literally Served Inmates Trash,” Think Progress, March 30, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/03/30/3640392/another-day-another-aramark-food-mishap/.

Jean Casela, “Supreme Court Justice Kennedy: The Corrections System Is ‘Broken’ and ‘Solitary Confinement Literally Drives Men Mad'”, Solitary Watch, March 25, 2015, http://solitarywatch.com/2015/03/25/supreme-court-justice-kennedy-corrections-system-is-broken-and-solitary-confinement-literally-drives-men-mad.

“Warehoused & Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System,” American Civil Liberties Union, June 2014, https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/060614-aclu-car-reportonline.pdf.

Student Researcher: Eric Marrujo (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)