Justice Department Orders Phasing Out of Private Prisons

In late August, the Justice Department issued a directive to phase out the use of private companies to operate federal prisons.

As each private prison contract comes up for renewal, the Bureau of Prisons “should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the memo. “This is the first step in the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”

Earlier that month, the office of the inspector general released results of an investigation showing that privately run federal prisons had more safety and security-related incidents than facilities operated by the Bureau of Prisons.

“Though presented in a bureaucratic, flat style, the inspector general’s findings are damning and outrageous,” said ACLU staff attorney Carl Takei in a commentary article for the Marshall Project. “Sentence by sentence, the report shows how the bureau fails to impose basic standards of health, safety and human decency on the private companies it pays to run these prisons.

Private prisons are a hotly contested issue for prison reform activists, who have alleged for years that corporations boost revenues by cutting services to the bare minimum, resulting in subpar conditions across the board: food, housing, medical care, programming and permeating safety problems, to name a few.

The corporations argue that they provide good service at a lower cost than the government could do on its own. This position is challenged by activists and by the findings of the inspector general’s recent report.

The federal prison population has swelled over the past couple of decades, increasingly almost 800 percent from 1980 to its peak in 2013, said Yates in the Justice Department memo. The Bureau couldn’t meet the demand to house all of those inmates, so it contracted out.

But the federal prison population has dipped from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 now, she wrote. The Bureau just doesn’t need help from the private sector like it used to.

Stock for the two biggest private prison companies—Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group—plummeted after the announcement.

However, privately run prisons make up only a very small portion of the federal prison system. Likewise, federal prison contracts comprise an increasingly small portion of the earnings of such companies.

At the federal prison population’s peak in 2013, about 15 percent of inmates were being housed in private prisons, according to the Justice Department memo. The directive will affect 13 privately run facilities.

The companies realized years ago what a decreasing prison population would mean for their business, so they diversified, said Maurice Chammah, a staff writer for the Marshall Project who has reported on private prisons.

Nowadays, many private prison companies are involved in immigration detention facilities and halfway houses, which the Justice Department said in its memo will not be affected by its decision.

“They’re going to hop from lilypad to lilypad to try to monetize whatever they can in the criminal justice system,” said Chammah.

And as fast as the decision came down, the next president could have significant sway when it comes to the federal government’s use of private prisons.

“Everything that we’re hearing about could be rolled back,” he said.

There is a zeitgeist of focus on private prisons in the past year.

The private prison system was thrust to the forefront of pop culture during recent seasons of the “Orange is the New Black” Netflix series with a story arc dramatizing the takeover of a federal prison by a private corporation.

And when it comes to influential investigative journalism, the report by the office of the inspector general was released on the heels of a July Mother Jones article in which  reporter Shane Bauer worked undercover as a guard at a CCA-run state prison in Louisiana.

“We took these extraordinary steps because press access to prisons and jails has been vastly curtailed in recent decades, even as inmates have seen their ability to sue prisons—often the only way potential abuses would pop up on the radar of news organizations or advocates—dramatically reduced,” wrote Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery in a note accompanying the article. “There is no other way to know what truly happens inside but to go there.”

CCA did not respond to a request for comment.

Nicole Fleming is a Boston Globe metro correspondent, freelance writer, and author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog (www.TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com). Follow her on Twitter @GirlEatsBoston.