Justice Department Will Phase Out Private Prisons

The Idaho Correctional Center in 2010. The facility, south of Boise, Idaho, is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. The Idaho Correctional Center in 2010. The facility, south of Boise, Idaho, is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. AP file photo

The Bureau of Prisons will decline to renew any expiring contracts with private companies that house federal prisoners, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced on Thursday.

“We now have approximately 195,000 inmates in bureau or private contract facilities, down from a high in 2013 of approximately 220,000,” she wrote in a blogpost accompanied by a memo to the bureau’s acting chief Thomas Kane. “This decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services—services that increase their chances of becoming contributing members of their communities when they return from prison.”

Yates linked the action to the Obama administration’s two-year-old Smart on Crime initiative for sentencing reforms, but also cited a recent Justice inspector general’s report showing that the contract prisons risk inmate and staff health. Private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources,” she wrote. “They do not save substantially on costs . . . and they do not maintain the level of safety and security.”

The IG’s review found that “With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined. For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones annually on average as the BOP institutions.”

Private prisons have been used since 1997 following an explosion of the U.S. incarcerated population in the 1980s and 1990s. As of December 2015, they housed about 22,660 inmates or 12 percent of BOP inmates at a cost to the government in fiscal 2014 of $639 million. The major contractors are Corrections Corporation of America; GEO Group, Inc.; and Management and Training Corporation.

“The rehabilitative services that the bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource,” the watchdog added.

“As each private prison contract reaches the end of its term,” Yates directed, “the bureau 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. This is the first step in the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”

She noted that BOP has already begun such non-renewals—one three weeks ago encompassing 1,200 beds and a second award announced on Thursday that will shrink one contract by 7,200 beds. “While an unexpected need may arise in the future,” Yates continued, “the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.”

Problems with privately run federal prisons have been highlighted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., who has complained of wasteful spending. A move to end the practice was proposed last year by Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

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