Study: More People of Color Sentenced to Private Prisons Than Whites

More than 60 percent of prison inmates in the U.S. identify as African American or Latino despite making up only 30 percent of the population. A recent study by Christopher Petrella, a doctoral candidate at U.C. Berkeley, finds that the majority of these inmates are more likely to serve time in a private prison than their white counterparts. Why? Because private prisons seek the least expensive prisoner to generate the highest possible profit.

Speaking to, Petrella explains why this is significant to black and Latino prisoners. "Based on historical sentencing patterns, if you are a prisoner today, and you are over 50 years old, there is a greater likelihood that you are white," says Petrella. "If you are under 50 years old -- particularly if you're closer to 30 years old -- you're more likely to be a person of color." He references a 2012 ACLU report which found that it costs $68,270 to support a prisoner age 50 or older compared with $34,135 per year to house a non-geriatric prisoner.

Essentially, the younger the prisoner, the cheaper they are to manage. Petrella explains that, "up until the mid-1960s or so, two-thirds of the U.S. prison population was what the Census Bureau would consider non-Hispanic white." White prisoners therefore account for much of today's aging prison population and its increasing health care costs. Housing a medically expensive inmate decreases a private prisons' return on investment. Private prisons account for this snag by contractually exempting themselves from housing costlier inmates. By default, this contractual policy enables them to deliberately avoid housing older white prisoners because they are more expensive to manage.

Private prisons receive carte blanche, picking and choosing the most desirable prisoner. In this case, they are more likely to chose African American and Latino prisoners; the prisoners of plenty. The shift in the incarceration rate among people of color has been well documented with overwhelming evidence suggesting the War on Drugs has had a disparate impact on people of color. Harsh drug policies have become an asset to private prison companies. With far more prisoners than prison cells, private prisons can count on ample amounts of offenders, mostly black and Latino, to fill their beds. More prisoners equal more profits.

Petrella looked at nine states and found that in four of them -- California, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas -- people of color are represented in private prisons at least ten percentage points greater than in state-run facilities. Because jailing individuals is a public cost, it is no surprise that U.S. and state governments have chosen to outsource in response to prison overcrowding. But this study brings up another point. Cutting costs and generating revenue at the expense of people of color is a tradition deeply woven in the fabric of American history.

"One of the reasons I think the study's important," Petrella said, "is that it continues to show how laws -- and even contractual stipulations -- that are, on the surface, race-neutral, continue to have a disproportionate and negative impact on communities of color." In other words, the inadvertent expression of racism in our nations drug policies and within public-private partnerships develops and sustains full-service systems of racism. And when laws allow the expression of implicit bias they also permit racial inequity.

Where does this leave us? Private prisons have been marketed as the necessary supplement to save taxpayer dollars. It is a system designed by the rich and for the rich. A system that clearly relies on the incarceration of African American and Latino people for its survival. Much like the way the U.S. was designed. Considering the way implicit racism operates in everyday decisions and actions, it seems the only thing to do is to attempt to fix it. Several analysis tools (see here and here) have been developed to support decision-making approaches and self-checking strategies that alleviate the impact of implicit bias. Policies that support the racist private prison business model are an ideal place to start. The challenge is to create a political space where it is possible, if not mandatory, to employ measures that will allow laws and policies to achieve racially equitable outcomes.