Prison privatization experienced a setback last week when the Justice Department announced it would begin phasing out the use of private contractor facilities as private prisons. This will come as no surprise to longtime opponents of the practice, but officials concluded private facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope. The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”
The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
It should be pointed out that this decision applies only to prisons that are operated within the federal government. The vast majority of people incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons (rather than federal ones) and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run. Nor does it apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons.
A spokesperson for the ACLU said that states typically look to the feds for best practices on prisons, and he “would not be surprised if we saw some states following suit.” But this is my no means a sure thing, and it is unlikely that the private companies operating prisons will walk away from their investments without a major fight. This will likely take years.
Yates’ directive is limited to 13 privately run facilities, housing a little more than 22,000 inmates, currently in the federal Bureau of Prisons system. There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, most of them under state and local control—so Yates’ directive will address only a fraction of the problem. Today, for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6% of state prisoners and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states.
Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group now run most of the 13 affected facilities. In 2015, both companies received roughly half of their revenue from federal contracts. But of that, only a portion comes from Bureau of Prisons corrections deals that will be wound down under Yates’ plan. Most of the companies’ revenue comes from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Marshals Service.
As can be seen at the right, CCA stocks experienced an almost immediate 51% plunge; on Friday, the GEO Group’s CEO George Zoley said the GEO Group doesn’t expect to lose federal prison business despite the Justice Department’s decision to end prison-management contracts with private companies. Furthermore, Zoley said Geo’s prison holdings and services are diversified, with operations growing in Australia. The company said it didn’t expect the department’s decision to affect any state contract extensions.
Please don’t get me wrong. This is an important event. It may even represent a turning-point in the way that we as a society view mass incarceration. But it is more symbolic than practical at this time.
In my opinion, all this emphasis on numbers sidesteps the most important argument against private prisons: that they are morally reprehensible. If state and federal governments don’t have the facilities to house our prisoners, too many people are being imprisoned.
Low-level offenses need to be decriminalized and sentences need to be shortened.
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