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Where Have All the (White and Hispanic) Inmates Gone? Comparing the Racial Composition of Private and Public Adult Correctional Facilities

January 2015

Brett C. Burkhardt


This article examines racial disparities in imprisonment rates to consider racial disparities in inmate populations across privately operated and publicly operated correctional facilities. The study reveals that in 2005, White inmates were significantly underrepresented and Hispanics significantly overrepresented in private correctional facilities relative to public ones. Results from multilevel models show that being privately operated decreased the White share of a facility’s population by more than eight percentage points and increased the Hispanic share of a facility’s population by nearly two percentage points. Mounting evidence suggests that private correctional facilities lag their public counterparts in a number of ways that influence inmates’ conditions of confinement. These findings raise legal questions about equal protection of inmates and economic questions about the reliance of private correctional firms on Hispanic inmates.

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Policy Implications

There are legal implications to overrepresentation of one racial group in deficient private facilities that could raise 14th Amendment questions about equal protection under the law, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Johnson v. California (2005) that racially disparate practices in prisons must be reviewed under the strict scrutiny standard. This review would require corrections agencies to demonstrate that racially disparate assignment to facilities is narrowly tailored to address a specific security problem and that no race-based alternative exists and could be used to investigate potential Johnson violations. Additionally, these finds question the role of Hispanic detention in the modern private corrections industry via immigrant detention. In 2011, the two largest private corrections companies generated 20% CCA and 14% GEO Group of their revenues from contracts with ICE. These findings could serve as a catalyst for further empirical research on how race operates in the private corrections industry.

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