Dr. Richard Fording “The Color of Corrections: Racial Politics and Prison Privatization” Journal Article

The Color of Corrections: Racial Politics and Prison Privatization

Dr. Richard Fording (University of Alabama) and Adam M. Butz

Journal Article in Social Policy and Administration, August 25, 2021


Privatizing the administration of American prisons represents a popular tool of correctional governance. In turn, policy and public administration researchers are routinely studying the consequences of prison privatization on criminal justice outcomes such as recidivism rates and prisoner complaints. However, much less attention has been paid to the antecedents of privatization decisions occurring across states, in particular how racial determinants might be influencing privatization outcomes. Building upon existing policy research with theories of social construction and negative racial classification, we argue that privatization debates over corrections management become more racialized when Black prisoners comprise a larger share of the state prison population, predicting higher overall levels of privatization usage. We further argue that this Black prisoner presence-privatization relationship is context-specific and conditioned by two additional variables: (1) levels of mass racial stereotyping and (2) partisan composition of state government. The statistical analysis demonstrates that racial determinants do significantly influence state prison privatization decisions and in complex ways as theorized. In states where Blacks make up a larger share of the prison population, privatization usage is found to be higher. Additionally, in line with theoretical expectations, Black prisoner presence is associated with increased privatization levels most strongly in states where citizenries hold heightened levels of racial fear and Republicans have increased legislative presence. This research is of keen interest to scholars of public policy and management, who could pay more heed to the ways in which race influences decisions around administrative structuring and outcomes for taxpayers and clients.