Betrayal Behind The Bars: Curbing Corruption in Prisons

This brief examines prison corruption on the different levels of the criminal justice system, from guard bribery to corrupt private prisons. This brief also explores solutions to minimize prison corruption on all levels.

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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This brief examines prison corruption on the different levels of the criminal justice system, from guard bribery to corrupt private prisons. This brief also explores solutions to minimize prison corruption on all levels. 

Executive Summary

This brief will holistically explore and examine prison corruption, covering different forms of corruption in the Criminal Justice system beyond private prison corruption and guard bribery. It will also contextualize prison corruption by covering its historical significance and policy issues. Moreover, it will also suggest solutions, in addition to the current efforts, to combat the problem. This brief aims to provide context, a better understanding of the situation, and more effective and efficient policy solutions. 


A. Pointed Summary
  • Prison corruption is a significant issue within the justice system, which seems to keep worsening due to prison conditions (as many inmates resort to bribery). 
  • The main reasons behind prison corruption include poor pay, systematic failures, and individualistic interests.
  • Prison corruption is a slippery slope as it has and may further lead to discrimination among the inmates, make the public and the people lose trust in the justice system, and affect the overall efforts of rehabilitation as well as negatively impact human rights. 
B. Relevance

The relevance of prison corruption undermines the criminal justice system's legitimacy. According to Transparency International, corruption within the criminal justice system leads, first and foremost, to decreasing public trust within institutions and establishments and minimizes the overall integrity of the criminal justice system. 

Prison corruption poses a severe threat to rehabilitation efforts within correctional facilities. The diversion of resources, favoritism, and bribery can result in unequal access to essential rehabilitation programs, hindering inmates’ opportunities for personal development.

Corruption within the justice system also heightens the vulnerability of inmates to various forms of abuse and human rights violations. Instances such as denial of medical care, restricted legal access, and inhumane treatment become prevalent, often contingent on bribes to prison staff. This compromises the fundamental human rights of inmates and undermines the rule of law within correctional facilities. 


Prison corruption dates back to 19th century penitentiary prisons, in which guards would accept bribes or turn a blind eye to activities within the prison. As the prison population grew, corruption intensified. A notorious example of this corruption occurred at the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Guards were known to smuggle contraband for inmates in exchange for money. Prison corruption has been publicized more in recent years and prisons have faced higher scrutiny for corruption practices in the news. These schemes often involve contraband smuggling and abuse or mistreatment of inmates.

A. Current Stances

Current stances on prison corruption emphasize the need for oversight, accountability, and transparency in the system. Advocacy groups and policymakers argue for reforms that will reduce the impact of corruption on the system.

B. Tried Policy

Some efforts to curb prison corruption include increased surveillance, randomized drug testing, and the establishment of anti-corruption organizations. Most of these organizations are global or broadly regional, such as the Global Law Enforcement Network against Transnational Bribery and Regional Anti-Corruption Initiative.

There have also been calls for modern technology solutions such as body cameras. Many prisons are not keeping up with new technology due to budget restraints. Surveillance cameras not only help monitor inmates but also help curb corrupt activity by visitors and guards. 

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

Corruption within prisons has a significant impact on prison employees and inmates. Due to corrupt, profit-driven private prisons, employees and inmates are not provided an adequate level of safety and security. Testimonies show that within private prisons, half of the prison staff had nonfunctioning radios, nor were they given pepper spray or protective vests. In comparison, prison employees in public prisons are provided upgraded radios and stab-proof vests. A lack of protective measures severely endangers private prison staff as they are more vulnerable to attacks by inmates. A US Department of Justice study shows that violent attacks by inmates on staff were 163% higher in private prisons. This issue affects inmates as well; the same study finds that inmate-on-inmate assaults were 30% higher in private prisons compared to public ones.

Beyond corruption in private prisons, inmates are also affected by corruption from prison employees. An investigation led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Georgia prisons revealed that 360 correctional officers had been arrested on contraband charges and 65 more for sexual assault, brutality, or extortion. As there is a staffing shortage in prisons and the only requirement to be hired is a high school diploma and a clean criminal history, it is very easy to become a correctional officer. Penal Reform International finds that this, alongside a low salary, makes correctional officers more susceptible to corrupt activities like extortion of inmates. Penal Reform International explains that corrupt prison employees affect inmates’ access to necessities like bedding and water, alongside their treatment while in prison. Prison employees may unjustly put inmates into solitary confinement or require them to pay a bribe to leave. Additionally, corrupt prison employees may develop close relationships with inmates and assist them in illegal activity while they are in prison, such as running black markets and drug trades. The corruption of private prisons and prison employees leads to severe impacts including the large-scale proliferation of contraband, violence, and murder that threatens the safety of prison employees and inmates.

B. Risks of Indifference

From the most basic level of prison corruption, a simple act of dishonesty or bribery by corrections officers can lead to unprecedented and potentially harmful consequences for many other individuals than just the correction officers or those in the vicinity of the wrongdoers. The indifference to the involvement of both highly-ranked and not-so-highly-ranked prison and political officials in corruption in the United States, in a system set in place to maintain law and order, does not only reflect negatively on the country’s legal and criminal justice system but in itself stands as a commentary to the nation’s promise of maintaining said law and order at every level. Systematic corruption in prison leads to creating an environment that does not only have potential consequences such as gang violence, escaping inmates, and an increase in ways inmates can maintain criminal networks from within bars but also an environment that might end up injuring the corrections officers involved in it in the first place. Over the years, there has been evidence for all of the above aftermath of prison corruption; Whether it be inmates escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility as discussed in greater detail by Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity or gang violence in the Rikers Prison System in 2015

More specifically, indifference to private prison corruption does not only breed and promote incarceration of individuals accused of minor charges or even innocent individuals for money/bribes to fill capacities at private prisons but also the vice-versa: not incarcerate individuals accused of major charges if prison facilities are at capacity. The 2002 “Kids for Cash” Scandal to this day stands as irrefutable proof of initial indifference to private prison corruption, which ended in unjustly sending kids to juvenile detention centers and facilities for troubled teens. Even though the case was inevitably investigated and the judges guilty for detaining the juveniles in exchange for bribes were incarcerated, at a human level, the  corruption forced these kids to suffer an experience they did not deserve, as private prison corruption does in many cases when left overlooked in its initial stage. It leads to a violation of human rights and human experiences for the benefit of privatized prisons and those who are offered money to carry out corruption in judicial courts and prison facilities. 

C. Nonpartisan Reasoning

While any side debating private prisons and prison corruption acknowledges the harm that corruption in privatized prison facilities impart, there are differing viewpoints on the costs and benefits of keeping and/or ending private prisons. Although there are many nuances to the republican viewpoint on prison reform due to the diversity of opinions on the topic within the republican party, traditionally, republicans have been supporters of private prisons as a way of attempting to reduce “government overscope”, viewing federal prisons as ineffective. However, the argument that it is the Republicans’ viewpoints on prison reform that have led to “overwhelming” prison systems also prevails. As more states with republican governors continue funding building prisons without reforms to address prison corruption in existing prisons, there is increasing fear around the safety and health of prisoners in these states.

On the other hand, the other side, including the democratic party,  concludes that private privatization comes at the cost of prisoners’ lives and well-being, given its for-profit management. Several Democrats have appealed for ending prison privatization or eliminating government contracts for prison privatization. Despite the difference in views towards prison reform, in 2022, due to an increase in cases of widespread corruption and abuse, the US Senate launched a bi-partisan team of lawmakers aimed at investigating and scrutinizing corruption within the Bureau of Prisons and “conditions of incarceration inside America’s 122 federal prisons,”

Policy Options

Prison corruption exists both internally, or within prisons, and also externally, or between outside entities. A common internal corruption occurs when guards are bribed, often due to low pay and stressful or violent circumstances. Thus, a potential solution is to improve pay and working conditions for guards so that they do not feel compelled to accept bribes. An example of this may be to reduce overcrowding or improve shift planning, so guards are not overworked. To prevent any inappropriate relationships from forming that could likely result in bribery, stricter regulations should be implemented in order to govern standards of conduct. These include reforms prioritizing increased oversight such as regular evaluations of staff assignment, random inspections of inmate work stations, frequent meetings between correctional officers, civilians, and high-level prison officials, as well as reviews of inmate work assignments. Instruction of security and civilian staff should be improved by preparing newly promoted officers promptly and strengthening training for security functions like cell searches. 

Another way that prisons are corrupt is through funding by private entities, which sway their priorities. A potential solution is results-oriented funding, or funding based on whether a prison reaches certain metrics or goals, rather than preemptive funding. This incentivizes prisons to increase quality of care, rather than comply with private entities’ wishes, while still achieving adequate funding. Another way to curb this type of corruption is to eliminate bed guarantee clauses, which according to the National Juvenile Justice Network, tie the hands of lawmakers and restrict future legislation, directed by governments obligated to maintain incredibly high occupancy rates. Private prison contracts must not include bed-guarantee clauses, which increase prison populations and counter efforts for inmate rehabilitation, to enact adaptable and just policies. For both the taxpayers funding empty beds and the well-being of prisoners, state legislators should ensure that payments to contractors are calculated based on the number of inmates currently present within a facility. This change will prevent private companies from having a financial safety net to fall back on and enhance their performance while allowing lawmakers to craft policies that benefit the goals of the general public. Furthermore, legislators may enact prison capacity limits to ensure that prisons are never filled to the maximum. This change will reduce overcrowding, improve working conditions, and avoid over-incrimination. Additionally, diverting minor offenses to be processed through alternative routes (including restorative justice or prosecutorial fines) could assist prisons in playing their appropriate role throughout the rehabilitation process and prevent congestion within prison systems. Similar consideration should be given to parents with dependent children, individuals dealing with mental health issues or drug addiction, and minor offenders, effectively accounting for case-specific needs while properly administering justice.

Finally, prisons can employ corruption risk assessments to identify weak points in their system. A potential issue with this approach is that internal bias sways assessment results and weakens the overall findings. Thus, officials may consider creating dedicated anti-corruption prison units that administer and review risk assessments and create plans to combat weaknesses. These units may oversee change in prisons and ensure that they are up to ethical standards. The process of creating evidence-based corruption risk assessments should also be refined and upheld. There is no standardized approach; however, in general, a wide array of information should be assessed, including interviews with staff members and prisoners, information from prison intelligence units, and inspection reports. Prison management should actively encourage and maintain a commitment to protecting whistleblowers, and fostering a culture of integrity within prison walls. Once risks have been identified, they should be prioritized according to their potential likelihood, impacts, and damages. Ensuring that corruption risk assessments are conducted impartially and effectively is crucial in reducing prison corruption.


To summarize, corruption practices in prisons nationwide require immediate policy readdressing. Corruption compromises correctional facilities' integrity, breeds systemic injustice, and erodes public trust in the criminal justice system. To counter this widespread problem, policymakers should focus on the measures dealing with the structural drivers of corruption, for instance, profiteering contracts with private companies, alongside the everyday practices of prison guards' misconduct. Developing robust oversight mechanisms, increasing transparency, and prosecuting those responsible for corruption are crucial stages on the road to a just and accountable criminal justice system. Promoting an institutional culture of integrity and ethical conduct in prison facilities is essential in creating an atmosphere that is intolerant of corruption.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Joy Park, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


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Aarya Chowdhry

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Aarya currently co-leads Criminal Justice Policy in the Policy department and is an Outreach Intern in the Education department at YIP. Fortunate to call Kanpur, India, her hometown, she is an avid reader, learner and poet.

Anagha Nagesh

Criminal Justice Team Lead

Anagha is a current student at John P. Stevens High School in New Jersey. She joined YIP in the Spring 2023 fellowship and now co-leads the Criminal Justice policy team. She hopes to pursue political science or policy in college. In her free time, she likes to sing, act, and travel.

Taylor Luna

Policy Analyst

Alayna Hassan

Alayna Hassan

Alayna is studying natural sciences with a specialization in English, in Sweden. She is very passionate about health, public policy and social justice (among many other topics). In the future, she aspires to merge these interests to help create change for good. In her free time, she love to read, binge-watch sitcoms and doing anything creative.

Emily Tsai

Policy Analyst

Emily is a passionate and inquisitive individual who finds joy in the simple act of reading. As a current junior, she has cultivated her fervor within the realm of gender rights, criminal justice, and public policy.

Naomi McKenna

Fall 2023 Fellow

Naomi McKenna is a high school student at Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland, who will graduate in 2024.