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DOJ Will Say Goodbye to Private Federal Prisons

Private facilities for federal inmates will be phased out—but state use of the practice remains

The Torrance County Prison in Estancia, New Mexico is operated by CCA, a private prison company. It will not be affected by the DOJ's new phaseout of private federal prisons. (Scottiphic (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

For nearly two decades, the Department of Justice has used private prisons as a way to accommodate a growing population of federal prisoners. But the decision to outsource imprisonment to publicly traded corporations has resulted in more than an expenditure of over $600 million each year—it’s impacted and even endangered the lives of one in eight federal prisoners, leading to calls for the practice’s abolition as part of wider reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system. And now, the practice will come to an end, report John Swaine, Oliver Laughland and Jana Kasperkevic for The Guardian.

Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision in a memo on the DOJ’s website. Addressed to Thomas Kane, the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the memo calls for the reduction and ultimate end of the DOJ’s use of private prisons.

As The Guardian reports, the decision was not reached in a vacuum. Activists and inmates have called for an end to the practice for years, damning the prisons as costly, ineffective and responsible for the growth of incarceration in the United States. Indeed, as Yates notes in her memo, national incarceration rates rose nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, and 15 percent of federal inmates (about 30,000) live in privately operated prisons.

In a release about the decision, Yates hails the initiatives that have led to the reduction of the federal prison population to about 195,000 inmates today, and states that “this decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services.” But a recent review of the private prison system likely contributed to the timing of the policy change and the decision to move forward.

A few days ago, the Department of Justice’s Evaluation and Inspections Division released a report skewering the practices of private prisons. It found that contract prisons had more safety and security incidents than prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons, including violations of federal regulations that require facilities to store video footage of incidents in which force is used. Two of three contract prisons reviewed also housed new inmates in facilities usually used to segregate or punish prisoners despite the fact that they had not engaged in behaviors that would qualify them for such housing. Federal prisoners in private facilities were found to be nine times more likely to be placed on lockdown.

The agency also found that its own oversight checklist did not ensure that prisoners receive basic medical services. Though its report did not recommend that the practice end, it did specify the need for more federal oversight and observation within the facilities.

Private prisons are big business, generating billions of dollars in profits for companies like CCA. (The announcement led to sharp drops in stocks of both CCA and its competitor, GEO.) But the DOJ’s plan to phase out federal use of private prisons will not impact everyone in the criminal justice system. As The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Chico Harlan point out, the plans do not apply to those incarcerated in state prisons, which house the majority of inmates in the United States. As CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng reports, 42 percent of CCA’s 2015 revenue came from state prisons.

Will the decision spark broader change? At the very least, it will continue to raise public awareness about the issue. Across the United States, there are stories like a New Mexico prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America being accused of lax medical care and a CCA-operated Kentucky prison the state of Hawaii withdrawing its female inmates from after allegations of ongoing sexual abuse, among others. And investigative reporters have exposed horrific gaps in care for immigrant men (25 whom may have died after being given insufficient care) and short-staffing, mismanagement and subpar treatment of private prison inmates.

Private prisons may not disappear in a day, but the DOJ decision could be an important first step in their abolition.

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