The Justice Department instructed the Bureau of Prisons on Thursday to start phasing out the use of private detention facilities, a watershed step that should be the beginning of the end of an industry that has had an insidious effect on the American justice system.
In a memorandum, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that the decline in the federal inmate population made it possible to start terminating and winding down contracts with private prisons, which she acknowledged were substandard and less safe than government-run prisons. “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources,” she wrote, adding that they also don’t “save substantially on costs.”
Private prisons became an important part of America’s corrections system starting in the 1980s, as tough sentencing guidelines adopted in response to a sharp rise in drug-fueled violent crime drove up the population of inmates and the cost of housing them. Over the years, a handful of companies made handsome profits from warehousing people as cheaply as possible. The top two private prison companies had $3.3 billion in revenue in 2014, an increase from $1.9 billion in 2006.
While privately run detention facilities were once seen as a fiscally responsible alternative, there’s now growing acknowledgment that they are a national shame. They are notoriously violent and dysfunctional, operating even more opaquely than state-run facilities, while paying miserable wages. The Justice Department inspector general reported this month that private prisons had higher rates of assaults and contraband than regular ones.
Immigrants convicted of federal crimes have been disproportionately routed to private detention centers, which run bare-bones operations, under the shortsighted theory that it’s futile to invest in rehabilitation or job training for them because most get deported when they serve out their sentence and become someone else’s problem.
The American Civil Liberties Union documented the hellish conditions for undocumented immigrants at several for-profit prisons in a 2014 report, “Warehoused and Forgotten.” This year, Mother Jones published a disturbing exposé of a prison in Louisiana run by Corrections Corporation of America, one of the large private firms, by a staff writer who gained access to the prison by working as a guard for four months.
In the short run, the Justice Department’s decision will affect a relatively small segment of people held in private prisons. Most of the companies’ business involves holding prisoners in state custody and those detained for immigration infractions. This development should prompt the Department of Homeland Security, which runs detention operations, as well as state officials, to follow the same path.