Approximately 9 out of 10 state jails, all federal prisons, and nearly 9 out of 10 private prisons offer educational programs to its inmates (table 3). More than eight out of ten state prisons, practically all federal prisons, almost seven out of ten private prisons, and more than half of jails provide high school level programs. Only a small percentage of jails and prisons are unable to offer programming due to lack of resources.
The majority of states that have prison education programs report having them for at least five years. However, several states report having programs that were originally established for less than one year but which have since continued. Several factors may explain why some states choose to continue education programs after they have been established; perhaps the programs are not as expensive as people think or there is support from within the government or the criminal justice system that wants to keep them going. It should be noted that in many cases, when these long-term programs start up again after being shut down for a period of time, they do so with reduced funding or no funding at all. Whether because of budget cuts or not, only a few states have been able to maintain their programs over time by finding new sources of revenue or by reducing other parts of their correctional budgets.
Almost all states that have prison education programs allow inmates to earn college credits, often through community colleges and universities across the country. Some states limit this opportunity only to certain types of offenders or those who complete certain programs.
According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, there were 133,000 state and federal convicts imprisoned in privately operated prisons in the United States as of 2013, accounting for 8.4 percent of the total U.S. prison population. Private prisons house about 2 percent of the state prison population and less than 1 percent of the federal prison population.
Private prisons are used by both state and federal governments. State governments use them to save money by using the lower cost per inmate of a private prison rather than a public one. Federal governments use them when they cannot get good rates from other providers. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses private prisons to house immigrants awaiting deportation hearings before an immigration judge. Companies that run private prisons receive a fee for each prisoner they house.
Some states have moved away from private prisons because of concerns about quality of care and safety. For example, in 2002 Louisiana closed two private prisons because they did not meet minimum standards set by the federal government. Also, in 2001 Indiana terminated its contract with a private prison company because it found conditions at those prisons to be unsafe.
Private prisons are subject to the same regulations as public ones. They must comply with state and federal laws, cannot discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, or gender, and must provide adequate food, shelter, health care, and psychological counseling.
State prisons have just three levels, but federal prisons have five: maximum, medium, and minimal. Maximum security prisons imprison the most dangerous criminals, who endanger other convicts, prison personnel, and society as a whole. Prisoners in these facilities are not only denied physical freedom but also limited communication with outside parties.
Minimal security prisons offer some degree of physical protection but generally do not employ a full staff of officers. For example, an officer may be present during visitation hours but not otherwise when prisoners are confined alone in their cells. Such precautions are taken to reduce the risk of violence within the facility. Minimal security prisons tend to house younger offenders or those who do not constitute a threat to public safety.
Medium security prisons provide greater physical protection than minimal security prisons but not enough to warrant a full staff. For example, an officer might be on duty during visitation hours but not otherwise when prisoners are in groups or isolated from each other. Medium security prisons house primarily non-violent offenders who would not be kept in maximum security facilities.
Maximum security prisons offer the greatest amount of physical protection from both inmates and staff. Officers are present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is usually no group activity or opportunity for isolation that would not involve inmates being locked up alone. This type of facility is used to house dangerous or violent offenders.