The U.S. Is Ending the Use of Federal Private Prisons—But That Won’t End Mass Incarceration

The news is a welcome reminder that marching in the streets can lead to reforms down the road.

Julia Clark-Riddell

There are currently over 22,000 prisoners—about 11 percent of the total federal prison population—in 13 federally contracted private prisons around the nation. (UMWomen/ Flickr)

In a major vic­to­ry for the crim­i­nal jus­tice reform move­ment, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice released plans today to end its use of pri­vate pris­ons over the next five years, accord­ing to a memo obtained by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

"While this development is a step in the right direction for the United States’ broken criminal justice system, it is by no means a panacea."

The memo, from Deputy Attor­ney Gen­er­al Sal­ly Yates, states that the depart­ment plans on not renew­ing con­tracts with pri­vate prison oper­a­tors or sub­stan­tial­ly scal­ing down those con­tracts, with the ulti­mate goal of abol­ish­ing fed­er­al pri­vate pris­ons altogether.

Yates also wrote that pri­vate pris­ons do not pro­vide the same lev­el of cor­rec­tion­al ser­vices,” do not save sub­stan­tial­ly on costs” and do not main­tain the same lev­el of safe­ty and security.”

There are cur­rent­ly over 22,000 pris­on­ers — about 11 per­cent of the total fed­er­al prison pop­u­la­tion — in 13 fed­er­al­ly con­tract­ed pri­vate pris­ons around the nation. The memo does not detail where the pris­on­ers will be moved, but Yates told the Post that by May 1, 2017, the total fed­er­al pri­vate prison pop­u­la­tion will fall to less than 14,200 inmates.

The 13 fed­er­al pri­vate pris­ons are oper­at­ed by three cor­po­ra­tions: the Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca, The GEO Group, Inc. and Man­age­ment & Train­ing Cor­po­ra­tion. Accord­ing to Yates, all of the con­tracts with these cor­po­ra­tions will be up with­in the next five years.

The DOJ announce­ment fol­lows years of protests, peti­tions and divest­ment move­ments both through coali­tions of immi­grant and labor groups and on col­lege campuses.

Orga­niz­ers against pri­vate pris­ons note that the for-prof­it insti­tu­tions increase recidi­vism (and are incen­tivized to do so, as they can make over $3,000 prof­it per year per pris­on­er) and often force pris­on­ers to work for free. The pri­vate pris­ons also have more inci­dents of con­tra­band, lock­downs, inmate dis­ci­pline, tele­phone mon­i­tor­ing and griev­ances per capi­ta than pub­lic pris­ons, accord­ing to a review by the Office of the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of the DOJ. Con­tract pris­ons have high­er rates of assaults, both by inmates on prison guards and inmates on each oth­er, than pub­lic pris­ons. In 2012, one GEO Group pri­vate juve­nile prison in Flori­da closed after a judge called it a cesspool of uncon­sti­tu­tion­al and inhu­man acts and conditions.”

Some uni­ver­si­ties, such as Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in June 2015 and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem in Decem­ber 2015, heed­ed the warn­ings of stu­dent activists who orga­nized aware­ness weeks, orches­trat­ed extend­ed sit-ins and passed stu­dent gov­ern­ment res­o­lu­tions, and divest­ed sub­stan­tial­ly from pri­vate pris­ons. Oth­er uni­ver­si­ties, such as North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, ignored their stu­dent activists and spoke of fidu­cia­ry respon­si­bil­i­ties and prof­it margins.

In what may prove to be quite the I‑told-you-so” moment for divest­ment activists, stocks for the cor­po­ra­tions have already begun plum­met­ing. On Thurs­day morn­ing, stocks for the Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca dropped 38.02 per­cent in the first four hours after the announce­ment and stocks for the GEO Group dropped 39.19 percent.

The fight against pri­vate pris­ons ranged beyond the col­lege cam­pus, stretch­ing across many aspects of the pro­gres­sive move­ment. The Nation­al Prison Divest­ment Cam­paign host­ed protest march­es in New York and met with Con­gres­sion­al staffers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The ACLU has orga­nized protests and released damn­ing reports of abus­es with­in pri­vate facil­i­ties. Ear­li­er this year, pro­gres­sive out­lets such as Moth­er Jones and The Nation pub­lished exposés and in-depth inves­ti­ga­tions on the cru­el­ties of the pri­vate prison indus­try, find­ing that pris­on­ers with seri­ous ill­ness­es are often denied health­care to save the bot­tom line, which has led to the pre­ma­ture death of at least two pri­vate prison inmates. When the Move­ment for Black Lives released their plat­form ear­li­er this month, they demand­ed fed­er­al action against G4S and oth­er glob­al pri­vate prison com­pa­nies that are prof­it­ing from the shack­ling of our com­mu­ni­ty in the US, in Pales­tine, in Brazil and around the world.” Even Bernie Sanders intro­duced a bill in 2015 to end for-prof­it prisons.

How­ev­er, while this devel­op­ment is a step in the right direc­tion for the Unit­ed States’ bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, it is by no means a panacea. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the major­i­ty of pris­on­ers are held in pub­lic pris­ons, which are often home to sim­i­lar abus­es and are more than capa­ble of per­pet­u­at­ing the social ills of mass incar­cer­a­tion even with­out their pri­vate coun­ter­parts. The DOJ memo makes no men­tion of clos­ing pub­lic pris­ons or attempt­ing to dimin­ish the total prison population.

The DOJ memo also fails to abol­ish the pri­vate deten­tion cen­ters scat­tered around the U.S.-Mexico bor­der and through­out the coun­try, oper­at­ed by cor­po­ra­tions such as G4S and Geo Group through con­tracts from the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. These deten­tion cen­ters hold tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, includ­ing thou­sands of chil­dren, who are denied the due process of law and held in inhu­mane con­di­tions.

Addi­tion­al­ly, state pri­vate pris­ons remain untouched by the DOJ’s pol­i­cy. There are over 100,000 inmates in state pri­vate pris­ons, almost five times more than those in fed­er­al pri­vate pris­ons, accord­ing to 2014 sta­tis­tics from the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics.

Final­ly, the pri­vate prison indus­try has a pow­er­ful lob­by, and could fea­si­bly reverse the DOJ’s plans. Even after Hillary Clin­ton announced that she want­ed to end pri­vate pris­ons and pri­vate deten­tion cen­ters,” Damon Hininger, the CEO of Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca, said his com­pa­ny would be just fine.”

I would say that being around 30 years and being in oper­a­tion in many, many states, and also doing work with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment going back to the 1980s, where you had Clin­ton White House, you had a Bush White House, you had Oba­ma White House, we’ve done very, very well,” Hininger said, while speak­ing at a REITWeek investor forum in June.

Still, up until 2013, the inmate pop­u­la­tion at pri­vate pris­ons had been rapid­ly increas­ing, up by almost 800 per­cent since 1980, with no end in sight. The clo­sure of 13 fed­er­al pri­vate pris­ons is the most sig­nif­i­cant rever­sal of that tide to date and serves as a wel­come reminder that march­ing in the streets can lead to reforms down the road.

Julia Clark-Rid­dell is a Sum­mer 2016 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. She stud­ies jour­nal­ism and polit­i­cal sci­ence at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and is from Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. Fol­low her on Twit­ter at @jclarkriddell.
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