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How Much Does It Cost To Buy a Prison?

Purchasing a prison is an uncommon and complex process that most people will never undertake. However, for those interested in owning a private prison or converting a shuttered public facility, the costs and steps involved are important to understand.

This article will provide a comprehensive overview of prison purchasing, including typical costs, the advantages and ethical concerns around private facilities, the process of acquisition, and what happens after the purchase.

Typical Costs of Buying a Prison

The costs of purchasing a prison can vary dramatically based on the size, location, age, and condition of the facility. Some of the main factors that influence price include:

  • Land and Buildings: The physical structures and acreage of the prison. Larger, newer facilities on expansive properties will cost much more than older, smaller prisons. Land prices also fluctuate based on location.
  • Capacity: The number of inmates a prison can hold. More beds means higher costs.
  • Infrastructure: Features like security systems, kitchens, medical facilities, recreation areas add value.
  • Renovations Needed: Some old prisons require substantial upgrades to become operational again.
  • Demand: Certain areas may have more need for private prison space, driving up prices.

Taking these factors into account, prison purchasing costs can range from around $5 million for a small 200 bed minimum security facility to over $100 million for a large complex prison with thousands of beds. The average price for a 1,000 bed prison is around $40-60 million. Of course, the ongoing operational costs of staffing and maintaining the prison must also be considered.

The Private Prison Industry: Pros, Cons and Controversies

Before deciding to buy a correctional facility, it’s important to understand the debates around private prisons. Some key considerations include:

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Pros of Private Prisons:

  • Can provide cost savings compared to public facilities
  • Construction funded by private capital, not tax dollars
  • Possibly more efficient operations and innovations

Cons of Private Prisons:

  • Concerns about profit motive and cutting corners on care/services
  • Higher rates of violence compared to public prisons
  • Lack of transparency and accountability

Ethical Concerns:

  • Private companies profiting off incarceration
  • Incentives to lobby for harsher sentencing to keep beds full
  • Prison labor practices bordering on exploitation

There are also many controversies around conditions, oversight, lobbying efforts, and more that plague the industry. Any buyer should fully research the complex ethical issues around running a private prison.

How to Buy a Prison: Key Steps in the Process

For those who decide to purchase a correctional facility despite the controversies, here are some of the key steps involved:

1. Choose a Location

  • Research areas with demand for more prison space based on overcrowding and projected incarceration rates
  • Look for facilities already designed as prisons vs. retrofitting other buildings

2. Select a Property

  • Work with brokers to identify facilities that meet your needs and budget
  • Thoroughly inspect the physical structures, operations systems, land, etc.

3. Raise Capital

  • Prisons require large upfront investments and access to financing
  • Develop a business plan to attract investors or get bank loans

4. Complete Due Diligence

  • Hire lawyers to review regulations, permits, zoning, titles, policies, risks, liabilities
  • Conduct environmental assessments for any contamination

5. Make an Offer and Negotiate Terms

  • Make an offer contingent on inspections, zoning changes, etc.
  • Negotiate price and closing timeline acceptable to both parties

6. Finalize Contracts and Close

  • Execute purchase and sale agreements, create LLC, obtain insurance
  • Complete final walkthroughs and transfer of funds/property deeds

The process involves extensive financial planning, underwriting, legal work, and negotiations – professional assistance is essential.

What Happens After You Own a Prison?

Once you have purchased a prison, the real work begins to make it fully operational again:

  • Obtain operational licenses/permits from departments of corrections
  • Hire and train security staff, administration, facilities management
  • Develop programs, education, training, counseling for inmates
  • Negotiate contracts with government agencies to house prisoners
  • Create systems for discipline, health services, maintenance, food services
  • Establish security protocols, contraband search procedures, etc.
  • Pass inspections to meet state standards and begin accepting prisoners
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There are also big decisions around prison management philosophy:

  • What is the overarching mission? Rehabilitation, incarceration, or a mix?
  • What inmate programs and job training will be offered, if any?
  • What discipline system will be used for inmate infractions?
  • Will prison labor be used and how? What compensation, if any?

Operating a humane, rehabilitative prison ethically is complex. Owners must be prepared for significant startup costs and challenges.

Notable Crimes and Convictions of Famous Inmates

Owning a prison means being responsible for some of society’s most infamous criminals. Here are just a few of the notorious inmates who have served time and their convictions:

Charles Manson

  • Convicted of: First-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for 1969 cult killings of 7 people including actress Sharon Tate.
  • Sentence: Death sentence commuted to life in prison after CA abolished death penalty in 1972.
  • Prison Time: Served over 40 years in various CA correctional institutions before dying in 2017 at age 83.
  • Infamous Quote: “Look down at me and you see a fool, look up at me and you see a god, look straight at me and you see yourself.”

El Chapo (Joaquín Guzmán)

  • Convicted of: Drug trafficking, money laundering, homicide, running a criminal enterprise as Sinaloa cartel leader.
  • Sentence: Life in prison plus 30 years and ordered to pay $12.6 billion in forfeitures.
  • Prison Time: Serving time in ADX Florence supermax prison in Colorado.
  • Infamous Quote: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”

Bernie Madoff

  • Convicted of: Masterminding the largest Ponzi scheme in history bilking investors out of $64.8 billion.
  • Sentence: 150 years in prison.
  • Prison Time: Served over 10 years in medium security prisons before dying in 2021.
  • Infamous Quote: “When I look back, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have said no. It wasn’t like I was being blackmailed into doing something against my will. I, sort of, you know, drifted into something.”
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Whitey Bulger

  • Convicted of: Racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug dealing, involvement in 19 murders. Leader of Boston’s brutal Winter Hill Gang.
  • Sentence: 2 life sentences + 5 years.
  • Prison Time: Killed in 2018 at USP Hazelton after transfer to violent WV facility.
  • Infamous Quote: “I’ve been in prison for 20 years. Write a book about me? Ask me a question.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Buying a Prison

Can anyone just buy a prison?

No, the purchase process involves extensive licensing and approval from departments of corrections to ensure prisoner welfare standards are met. States can block sales they deem unsafe.

Are bank loans available to buy prisons?

Sometimes, but the controversial nature of the industry makes approval difficult. Most use private equity or hedge funds.

What types of prisoners can private prisons house?

Most house low to medium security inmates. Privately run maximum security prisons are rare. Some house specific populations like immigrants.

How much profit margin can private prisons make?

Profit margins average around 10-20% but vary based on contracts with government agencies and operational efficiencies. Ethics should supersede profits.

Can prisoners do labor in private prisons?

Yes, but compensation, safety standards, and voluntary participation are major ethical concerns around prison labor practices. Strict oversight is essential.


Purchasing and operating a private prison is a complex process involving huge capital investments and ethical considerations around prisoner welfare, rehabilitation vs. punishment, and the overall morality of profiting from incarceration. While costs can range from millions to over $100 million, the real work begins post-purchase to create humane conditions and programs that emphasize rehabilitation over pure punishment.

With careful operations and oversight, some believe the private model can spur innovations unavailable in public prisons, but the industry remains highly controversial. Those considering buying a prison must thoroughly research if its potential rewards balance out society’s demand for justice, safety, and human rights.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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