The Business Keeping Small Towns Alive

The private prison industry is expected to see an economic boom with Donald Trump in the White House, as suggested by investors rushing to buy stock in for-profit detention companies like GEO and CoreCivic. But privately owned prisons aren’t the only ones profiting from mass incarceration. Public jails across the country are also lucrative sources of income.


There are three main ways small towns make money off jails: renting space to overcrowded state or federal prisons; reaping commissions from jail services provided by private companies; and charging non-convicted residents awaiting trial court fees, fines, and exorbitant bail. This trio has encouraged the growth of small county jails across the United States.

“It’s been part of the whole economic strategy,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. “Louisiana is probably the most extreme example," he told ATTN:.

"They aren’t privatized, they are still small public jails," Mauer said. Still, while it's not for profit, there's still an incentive to increase business. "The money goes directly into the budget of the local sheriffs departments. It’s been very lucrative.”

According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s most recent data, over 75 percent of Louisiana jail cells were being “rented out” to the state, a stark example of a nationwide trend. In Oklahoma, where PPI estimated 25 percent of public jail cells are rented for long-term inmates, Oklahoma’s Own reported the income from this made up around 7 percent of local county budgets.

“A lot of local jails are operating like private prisons,” Aleks Kajstura, legal director at PPI, told ATTN:.

When it comes to controversial programs like video visitation, which charges inmates to chat with loved ones online and frequently replaces in-person visitation, public county jails are less likely to face resistance from regulators than state or federal prisons. PPI reported that by 2014 over 500 facilities used video visitation systems. In places like Baldwin County, Alabama, where a private service provider agreed to give the county more than 84 percent of profits, local jails are expected to make around $55 a month per inmate — just in calls. 


It’s no wonder the population of small and mid-sized county jails has skyrocketed. According to a nationwide report on jails by the Vera Institute of Justice, smaller counties now hold 44 percent of all inmates. From 1970 to 2014, six new “super jails” (county jails with over 1,000 beds) opened in small counties, with 86 new “super jails” built in mid-sized counties.

It’s hard to say to what extent local jail populations have grown since 2014, according to Vera researcher Jacob Kang-Brown, because the government only publishes national data on these populations every five to seven years.

“Local jails have far less attention paid to them,” Kang-Brown told ATTN:.

Meanwhile, convicted inmates are now living in jails that often lack recidivism programs and infrastructure for long-term health care, alongside locals still awaiting trial who just can’t afford to pay bail. Like the criminal justice system at large, people of color bear the brunt of this system. In December 2015, the White House Council of Economic Advisors published a report warning that counties with lower populations were charging higher fees and fines and that “judicial discretion” often left black defendants burdened with “systematically higher levels of bail” than their white peers.

“In some places, agencies become reliant on those fees,” PPI analyst Wendy Sawyer explained to ATTN:.

And there's little incentive to change. “Many of these problems are getting worse,” noted The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer. “There’s no question about that.”