Oregon Prison Study Shows Racial Disparities

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A new study released by Oregon State University (OSU) shows Hispanics are disproportionately represented in private prisons across the United States, while white inmates are underrepresented, a pattern which could leave private correctional facilities vulnerable to legal challenges.

OSU researchers analyzed national correctional facility data for roughly 1,500 state and federal correctional institutions, not including federal immigration detention facilities. Findings showed the percentage of adult Hispanic inmates in private prisons was two points higher than those in public facilities, while the percentage of white inmates in private prisons was eight points lower than in public facilities, said Brett Burkhardt, assistant professor of sociology in the OSU School of Public Policy.

“This is a systemic issue,” Burkhardt said in a release. “Prison administrators should be aware of racial disparities in inmate placement to ensure that inmates’ rights are being upheld and to avoid future lawsuits.”

Researchers pointed to concerns that those held in private prisons are given fewer opportunities for work and rehabilitation, and are more likely than those in public correctional facilities to “get into trouble” while incarcerated. According to Burkhardt, research has shown private prisons report higher rates of both inmate grievances misconduct, fewer work assignments for inmates and more inmate escapes than their public counterparts. This could raise questions about whether private prisons offer inmates equal protection under U.S. civil rights law, according to researchers.

“The data can’t demonstrate that there is a violation of inmates’ rights,” Burkhardt said. “But prison officials should be aware of the pattern because it could trigger lawsuits.”

Burkhardt added that the disparity in prison placement is not linked to higher overall incarceration rates of Hispanics. Rather, it appears to stem from the process in which inmates are assigned to a correctional facility, which is typically managed by prison administrators. However, the research indicates there is a racial pattern to inmate assignment at correctional facilities, which also could raise legal concerns for corrections officials, Burkhardt said.

While the study showed African-American inmates also were overrepresented in private prisons, the difference was not statistically significant. However, when populations of African-American and Hispanic inmates were combined, that total was four percentage points higher in private institutions than in public.

Burkhardt added that these racial disparities are present in both federal and state facilities, and do not appear to be linked to the facility’s security level, size or age. The researcher concluded that more research is necessary, but that private prison operators “may prefer healthier inmates, which tend to be young, non-white inmates; or the assignments may be tied to prisoners’ gang affiliations.”

A similar study released in March 2013, The Color of Corporate Corrections, supports the OSU findings. Doctoral candidate Christopher Petrella of the University of California at Berkeley and New York University graduate student Josh Begley found people of color, particularly young people, are “historically overrepresented in public prisons relative to their share of state and national populations.”

Petrella and Begley’s research showed inmates of color were further overrepresented in private prisons contracted by the Arizona, Texas and California departments of correction. According to their study, California showed the greatest racial disparity, as 89 percent of California inmates housed in private prisons were people of color, compared with 75 percent in public correctional facilities. In Texas, 71 percent of the inmates held in privately operated facilities were people of color, compared with 66 percent in public prisons. In Arizona, the contrast was less stark with 65 percent of the private prison population is composed of people of color, in comparison with 60 percent in public prisons.