How dangerous are privately run prisons?
Posted September 4, 2016
The U.S. Department of Justice announced in an Aug. 18 memo that it will begin phasing out its contracts with private companies that run federal prisons.
The DOJ currently oversees 122 prisons, but the decision directly affects all 13 of the privately run prisons overseen by the department. Those 13 prisons hold 22,104 of the 193,299 federal inmates currently incarcerated.
A spokesman for Corrections Corporation, the largest U.S. owner of private prisons, told Bloomberg in an email that the announcement would only affect "7 percent of our business."
And a spokesman for Management and Training Corporation — one of the three companies that runs DOJ-contracted private prisons — said in an email to The New York Times that the decision would cost the government more money, citing a 2015 Bureau of Prisons study that estimated it costs the government $80 a day to house an inmate in a public prison and $63 a day to house an inmate in a private facility.
"There may be some justification, but to base this decision on cost, safety and security and programming is wrong," said Issa Arnita in response to the DOJ's memo.
Bloomberg reported this week that contracted prisons often house criminal aliens awaiting deportation, and many of them have gang affiliations that could explain violent behavior and increased incidents involving drug or cellphone contraband.
"The inspector general makes a naked comparison of public and private prisons with no effort to control for important variables such as inmate demographics," said associate professor at Emoy University School of Law Sasha Volokh in an interview with Bloomberg.
It should be noted that the Bureau of Prisons website lists all 13 prisons in question as low-security facilities, meaning they have "double-fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components."
David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told The New York Times that the decision is "historic and groundbreaking.”
“For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others,” Fathi said.
The decision, reported first by The Washington Post, was lauded by human rights advocates, but many are saying it will have minimal effects on an industry plagued by incidents related to inmate violence, sexual misconduct, contraband, drugs and more, as recently noted by the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General.
The decision also comes shortly after a Mother Jones investigation found "serious deficiencies in staffing and security," as well as high levels of violence in private prisons.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) was among those who called the decision “an important first step … but it is not enough."
"We must insist that these changes are adopted by all federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which relies heavily on private prisons even for housing vulnerable women and children," Leahy said. "Incarceration should not be a for-profit business.”
Numerous other private prisons and detention centers around the country will continue to operate even as the DOJ allows contracts to expire. Close to 85 percent of the private prison population will remain in privately run facilities, even after the closures, according to Bureau of Prisons numbers.
Immigration detention centers are among some of the most controversial private prisons. Though many of those detention centers have been criticized for their conditions and were recently accused of holding immigrants in dirty and overcrowded cells in a June 2015 class-action lawsuit, they will not be affected by the decision because they are overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement, not the DOJ.
More than 20 percent of Corrections Corporation's revenue comes from detention centers, Bloomberg reported.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in her memo that private prisons "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
The DOJ estimates it will reduce the number of inmates in private prisons to 14,200 — more than 50 percent — by May 2017.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @sarapweber