Where have all the (White and Hispanic) inmates gone?

Where have all the (White and Hispanic) inmates gone? Comparing the racial composition of private and public adult correctional facilities

From Race and Justice

Reliance on imprisonment has grown tremendously since the 1980s in the USA.  A growing body of research has documented the many ways in which criminal justice is apportioned unevenly across racial categories. That Blacks are greatly overrepresented in American prisons is by now well known among scholars. Hispanics are also overrepresented in American prisons, though to a lesser extent. In every year between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic male imprisonment rate was more than twice the highest rate of non-Hispanic White males during this period. A growing share of inmates is held by firms in the private sector, which entered the field of correctional management in earnest in the 1980s.

This article addresses the racial patterning of inmate placement in correctional facilities by comparing the racial demographics of inmates in private and public correctional facilities. The findings reveal a systematic overrepresentation of Hispanic inmates (and underrepresentation of White inmates) in prisons operated by private companies. This newly identified disparity is one of a growing list of racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. The findings raise legal questions about equal protection of inmates and economic questions about the role of Hispanic inmates in the private corrections industry.


A great deal of research has documented racial disparities in imprisonment rates in the United States, but little work has been done to understand the process by which inmates are assigned to individual correctional facilities. This article extends research on racial disparities in imprisonment rates to consider racial disparities in inmate populations across prisons. Specifically, it examines the racial pattern of inmate placement in privately operated and publicly operated correctional facilities. Analysis of American adult correctional facilities reveals that, in 2005, White inmates were significantly underrepresented (and Hispanic inmates overrepresented) in private correctional facilities relative to public ones. Results from multilevel models show that being privately operated (as opposed to publicly 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, net of facility- and state-level controls. 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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Article details
Brett C. Burkhardt
Where Have All the (White and Hispanic) Inmates Gone? Comparing the Racial Composition of Private and Public Adult Correctional Facilities Race and Justice 2153368714539355, first published on July 11, 2014 doi:10.1177/2153368714539355




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