THE NATION’S PRIVATE prison population has increased drastically over the past two decades, rising 39% from 2000 to 2017 and far outpacing the overall prison population’s increase of nearly 8% over that time period, according to a report by The Sentencing Project.
But the number of people in state and federal private prisons has decreased by 11.3% from its peak in 2012 to 2017, according to the report. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes reforms in sentencing policy and addresses unjust racial disparities and practices, analyzed data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While some states have experienced a drop in their private prison populations since 2012, and some have recently banned the use of such facilities, New Mexico has held its position as the state most reliant on private prisons.
Half of New Mexico’s inmates were held in private prisons in 2019, according to Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project. Comparatively, only 8% of people nationally are housed in private prisons. Experts attribute the state’s heavy use of private prisons to its political history — governors from both political parties have upheld the use of private prisons — and to the fact that the state’s largest prison is privately owned.
The number of states relying on private prisons is dwindling, as more states ban the use of the facilities and others seldom use them. Between 2000 and 2016, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin banned private prisons, according to a 2018 report co-authored by Gotsch. Meanwhile, Gotsch says most of the 22 states that don’t have private prisons have never had them. And among those that do, their use varies widely. For example, Gotsch says that Maryland only reported placing 32 inmates in private prisons in 2017, which only accounts for 0.2% of the state’s overall prison population.
Private prisons are linked with quality and safety concerns resulting from the fact that they have to reduce costs below that of publicly-run facilities while also generating a profit for shareholders, according to The Sentencing Project. The main way private prisons control spending is by paying their staff less, which can lead to improper job training, according to the nonprofit organization.
Gotsch, on the other hand, calls New Mexico’s private prison population rate of 50% “huge and unprecedented.”
Since the state didn’t report its 2017 statistics (the year used in the rest of the BJS report), Gotsch reached out to New Mexico’s corrections department for its 2019 data.
According to Gotsch, the use of private prisons is “sort of built in” to the state’s criminal justice system and has been since the facilities became popular in the ’90s under then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson. “The governor at the time believed in them and despite years of problems, riots and debt in private facilities, the state continues to really double down on them, even during Democratic governor administrations,” she says.
Gotsch’s 2018 report notes that prison corporations have “contributed generously” to New Mexico’s political leaders to secure political support for the industry in the state.
New Mexico has experienced a 72% increase in its private prison population since 2000, Gotsch says. She adds that this is especially significant given the fact that crime in the U.S. has been dropping during the past 25 years.
Still, New Mexico Corrections Department Public Information Officer Eric Harrison says the state’s latest counts taken in December show that roughly 45% of the state’s prisoners are currently located in private facilities.
Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility, the state’s youngest privately owned prison located in the town of Clayton, was turned over to the state in November. Seven of the state’s 11 prisons are now public.
“We love (the transition) and our administration has been really supportive of it,” Harrison says.
He says that the New Mexico Corrections Department values its partnerships with private prisons, but the public prisons allow the state to have complete control over program expansion in the facilities.
Harrison says that New Mexico’s high private prison population rate is likely partially due to the fact that its largest facility is private. Lea County Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Hobbs, New Mexico, holds 1,200 inmates of the state’s 6,866 prisoners as of December 2019.
While many people oppose private prisons, arguing that they offer poor and even unconstitutional conditions for inmates, Gotsch notes that public prisons have “huge problems,” too.
“I oppose the use of private prisons, and I don’t want them to be in existence, and I think those competing industries are capitalizing on the American obsession with incarceration,” Gotsch says. “But I do think that even if we got rid of all private prisons, we’re still going to have a mass incarceration problem, we’re still going to have unconstitutional conditions in prisons and there will still be way too many people in prisons.”
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, explained the nonprofit’s opposition to private prisons in an email statement to U.S. News.
“New Mexico should divest from private prisons not only because they help fuel a system of mass incarceration that has decimated families, deepened racial disparities, and failed to make our communities safer, but because these corporations are notorious for abuse and neglect,” Simonson said.
He also addressed the use of privately run immigration detention centers, where he said the ACLU of New Mexico has had to intervene on behalf of immigrants who have faced medical neglect, sexual assault and prolonged isolation.
These immigration detention centers were not included in The Sentencing Project’s private prison statistics measuring an increase in the facilities’ population from 2012 to 2017. But the organization collected separate statistics on those detention centers and found that the privately detained immigrant population grew by 442% since 2002. In 2017, 73% of the detained population was confined in privately run facilities.
While Gotsch believes that there would still be mass incarceration and unconstitutional conditions in corrections facilities without private prisons, she clarifies that in the context of the immigration system, “it’s a very different animal.” Immigration detention relies far more heavily on private prisons than the rest of the criminal justice system, she explains.
“Because of the presence of the private prison industry, the federal government is able to quickly change policy and ramp up detention and incarceration of people here for immmigration issues, and that is really troubling and upsetting,” Gotsch says.