Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington in June.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington in June. J. David Ake/AP

The Federal Government is Quietly Backing Out of Its Promise to Phase Out Private Prisons

The Bureau of Prisons is renewing contracts with private prison companies, despite plans to phase their use out.

Critics have long denounced private prisons in the US as unsafe, inefficient and at times, inhumane. Those critics, who include inmates and activists, seemed to find a powerful ally earlier this year when the Department of Justice announced it would phase out its use of private prisons for federal prisoners. This wouldn’t mean the end of privately-run incarceration facilities (they’re also used by immigration authorities and states), but it was seen as a step forward. Except, that when the first contracts came up for re-negotiation this fall, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly decided to renew them anyway. That decision, along with the election of Donald Trump, mean that the US is unlikely to see the use of private prison operators diminish any time soon.

Last week, CoreCivic (CCA), one of the country’s two largest prison operators, announced that the BOP had renewed its contract for two years to run the McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia. According to the company, the new agreement was barely changed, with only an 8% reduction in inmate beds. This despite an August memo from the deputy attorney general Sally Yates that stated that the Department of Justice, which oversees BOP, would either nix the contracts, or “substantially” reduce them when they came up for renewal.

Curiously, the BOP said the new contract, reduced the number of beds by 24%, and saved $6 million in costs, and followed DOJ instructions. The reason for the discrepancy? BOP initially provided Quartz only the maximum capacity of the facility as a basis for the calculation. CoreCivic presented the minimum number of beds it would get paid for—the fixed amount it is guaranteed by the contract.

Either way the contract renewal is spun, activists are disappointed. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the McRae facility neglected the medical care of some inmates, and unduly punished inmates with solitary confinement. In 2011, the group asked the BOP to shut the prison down.

The ACLU wasn’t alone. “We were hoping for the facility to shut down,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a legal and advocacy director of Project South, an anti-racism group based in Atlanta.

She pointed out that the BOP extended its contract with GEO Group, the other leading prison company in the US in September for the D. Ray James Correctional Facility, also in Georgia. As with the McRae facility, the company presents the reduction of the contract as small, and the BOP presented the cut as larger in an email to Quartz, using different numbers from the agreement.

“This track record doesn’t show at least any short term determination to abide by the mandate established in [the DOJ] memo,” said Shahshahani. The DOJ did not respond to Quartz’s request for comment.

Separately, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US has activists worried that the steps taken by the Obama administration to reduce the population of inmates in private prisons will be quickly rolled back. Trump has said outright that he supports prison privatization, and his plans for cracking down on illegal immigration would be a boon for prison operators: the stock prices of CCA and the Geo Group soared following his election. Meanwhile, his nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions—a harsh critic of criminal justice reform efforts—to serve as attorney general certainly won’t help. In October, Geo Group hired two former aides to Sessions to lobby in favor of outsourcing federal corrections to the private prison industry.

“We are actually anticipating that the DOJ decision be quite possibly overturned. Either formally or they would be renewals or re-granting of the full contracts,” said Bethany Carson at Grassroots Leadership, a prison advocacy organization.

What has Carson and her group particularly worried is the president-elect’s promise to introduce mandatory minimums for illegal re-entry convictions after a previous deportation. Illegal entry and re-entry convictions already make up nearly half of federal prosecutions. The convicts are mostly held in thirteen so-called “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons, run by private companies, largely CoreCivic and GEO. Both facilities with which the BOP extended its contracts are CAR prisons.

Carson said that mandatory minimums would send average sentences for re-entry “through the roof,” and would require expanding the private prisons the DOJ said it would close in August.

“Expanding this existing system that federally prosecutes immigrants just for crossing the border to reunite with their families or flee dangerous situations could be one way to quite literally manufacture the so-called criminals he wants to deport,” said Carson.

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