Prison Privatization and Inmate Labor in the Global Economy: Reframing the Debate Over Private Prisons

55 Pages Posted: 22 May 2015

See all articles by Alfred C. Aman

Alfred C. Aman

Indiana University-Bloomington, Maurer School of Law

Carol Greenhouse

Princeton University

Date Written: 2015


The pragmatics of privatization offer terrain for a critical understanding of the relationship between government and business under the conditions associated with the globalization of neoliberal capitalism. Prison privatization is especially significant in this context, given the fact that — for privatization advocates and critics alike, in the United States and elsewhere — prisons represent a bellwether for broader questions about the scope of government. We review the recent history of prison privatization in the United States from the vantage point of the policy responses to the privatization movement more generally, to highlight the various factors that, over time, made private prisons iconic of the limits of government. We develop three interrelated themes: (1) prison privatization was politicized as a test of government’s scope only after a priority on limiting government was set in place as a matter of policy under the Reagan and Bush Administrations (and continued thereafter); (2) the privatization movement pressed for prison privatization prior to the mass incarcerations of the 1980’s and 1990’s, often claimed as the rationale for private prisons (i.e., to relieve state budgets from the costs of expanding prison capacity); and (3) an earlier privatization project within prisons involved governmental partnerships with businesses, as a means of financing prisons and stabilizing businesses’ profit margins through prison labor. In sum, in relation to prisons, privatization should not be seen as a necessary response to prison crowding, but a favored response to instabilities within the global economy. What, then, is the problem with prison privatization? We read the private prison debate as pointing to larger questions of public responsibility and the government’s role in mediating the effects of the global economy on the conditions of life, labor and citizenship, inside and outside prison walls.

Keywords: Privatization, Private prisons, Prison labor, Prison industry, Prison, Industry Enhancement, Federal Prison Industries, Globalization, Domestic Face of Globalization, Global economy, Financialization, Neoliberalism, Neoliberal Capitalism, Neoliberal regulatory reform, Environmental regulatory reform

Suggested Citation

Aman, Alfred C. and Greenhouse, Carol, Prison Privatization and Inmate Labor in the Global Economy: Reframing the Debate Over Private Prisons (2015). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 42, 2015; Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 317. Available at SSRN:

Alfred C. Aman (Contact Author)

Indiana University-Bloomington, Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States
812-855-1902 (Phone)
812-855-0555 (Fax)

Carol Greenhouse

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics