Private Prison Usage in Mexico

The use of private prisons in the U.S. is perhaps one of the most well-known present day controversies in American politics. Although the first for-profit prison was established in 1852, the most recent resurgence of private prisons occurred during the 1980s; as prison populations increased rapidly with the advent of the “war on drugs”, prison privatization offered an efficient solution to overcrowding and rising costs.[1] In 2015, per Bureau of Justice statistics, for-profit companies were responsible for approximately 7% of state prisoners and 18% of federal prisoners.[2] The use of private prisons in the U.S. even extends beyond citizens – in 2016, per U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, almost 75% of federal immigration detainees were held in private prisons.[3]

Other countries have also begun experimenting with private prisons, including Mexico. On 2010, Mexican President Felipe Calderón introduced a plan to build “ten new high security prisons…by the private sector and some companies”, specifically ICA, Tradeco, GIA, Homex, Prodemex, and Arendal.[4] The first of these prisons was inaugurated on February 10, 2012, in Hermosillo, Sonora and involve an investment of 4.2 billion pesos ($325 million) to allow for state-of-the-art equipment including custom entrances with automated locks and a hospital with laboratories.[5] The use of private prisons has continued with President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has committed to building seven prisons through the Contrato de Prestación de Servicios (CPS) in which private companies build prisons and take care of subsequent maintenance, food, and cleaning.[6] As of 2016, the monthly Cuaderno Nacional de Información Estadística Penitenciaria referred to six Centros Federales de Readaptación Social, which altogether hold 15,128 prisoners with occupancy rates of about 85%.[7]

One of the benefits of privately held prisons is a lower expense for the state, an argument that both presidents Calderón and Peña Nieto have used to advocate privately run prisons. However, this has not been the case in Mexico due to private contracts that force the government to pay for full capacity. Per the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, the Mexican government pays about 1,500 pesos per prisoner in a private prison, instead of the 390 pesos of an inmate in a state prison.[8] Similar comparisons also show vastly higher rates paid to private companies for food and cleaning services. Because the government pays for full prisons regardless of actual capacity, relocations have moved hundreds of inmates from state prisons to private prisons. Out of the 24,430 people in federal prisons, the six CPS centers in Sonora, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Durango, Chiapas, and Morelos account for 53% of inmates.

The Mexican government has also turned to an end to corruption and overcapacity as part of the reason to build private prisons. However, private prisons have also failed to solve these problems. In 2012, Mexican prisons were operating at an average of 25% overcapacity; this has resulted in disastrous events including a riot at a prison with 150% overcapacity.[9] While it is true that building more prisons will help reduce overcapacity, companies do not have any incentive to decrease the inmate population – in fact, companies may be interested in driving up profits by increasing the number of prisoners. The Mexican government also has an interest in raising the number of inmates, because as discussed earlier, the state pays for a private prison’s full capacity. Additionally, although built and maintained by private companies, privatized prisons in Mexico are still run by Mexican state actors, thus negating the argument of reduced corruption. Many inmates in private prisons are abused by guards. Individuals have recounted stories of visiting individuals in prisons who are chained and forced to spend twenty-three hours per day in their cell, with only one hour to spend outside.[10]

For anyone who has followed the usage of private prisons in the U.S., these results should not come as a surprise; for decades, numerous studies have noted the deleterious effect of privately run prisons on both prisoners. Additionally, on August 18, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report that compared fourteen private and fourteen state run prison facilities, noting that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP [U.S. Bureau of Prison] institutions”.[11] Additionally, the report stated that private prisons had more incidents per capita including “higher rates of assaults”, that private prisons were more frequently cited for “one or more safety and security deficiencies, including administrative infractions such as improper storage of use-of-force video footage, as well as more serious or systemic deficiencies”, and that some private prisons were improperly housing new inmates.[12] In its conclusion, the DOJ indicated that the BOP should either decline to renew contracts with private prison contractors or reduce the scope of private corporations in handling prisoners.[13]

The DOJ’s report should act as a warning to Mexico, who should also consider stopping the use of privately run prisons. This is particularly true considering the fact that four of Mexico’s private prisons are only partially built or are still not open despite the billions of pesos poured into them.[14] Rather, the Mexican government should focus on working towards a more effective judicial system in order to reduce the number of individuals in prison. By addressing issues such as the fact that more than one third of all prisoners in Mexican prisons have yet to be sentenced, some of whom spend years waiting trial, Mexico can remedy its judicial system and accordingly, eradicate the need for privately run prisons.[15]


[1] “Private Jails in the United States.” FindLaw.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Private Prisons.” American Civil Liberties Union.

[4] Lajous, Andrés. “La privatización del sistema carcelario en México.” Nexos. April 9, 2012.

[5] “Calderón inaugurates high-tech federal prison for 2,500 inmates.” February 10, 2012.

[6] Hernánadez, Juan Luis García. “Las cárceles privada nos cuestan 4.5 veces más, pero el Gobierno planeo otras siete.” Sinembargo. September 11, 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] O’Neill McCleskey, Claire. “Mexico to Build 2 Private Prisons by Year-End.” InSight Crime. August 8, 2012.

[10] Weinstein, David. “Privatization of Prisons in Mexico and the Rights of Person Deprived of Liberty.” Human Rights Brief. April 10, 2016.

[11] Office of the Inspector General. “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons.” U.S. Department of Justice. August 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Murray, Christine and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein. “After Drug War Contracting Boom, Mexican Prisons Stand Idle.” U.S. News. February 17, 2017.

[15] Ibid.