The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it will end the use of private prisons to house federal inmates, following the inspector general’s report that private facilities are significantly less safe and more costly than Bureau of Prison (BOP) run institutions. At its peak in 2013, there were 219,000 federal inmates, 15% of whom were housed in corporate-run facilities.
The contracts for all 14 private federal prisons will expire within the next five years, with the number of prisoners in these facilities expected to drop from 22,000 now to 14,200 by May 2017 alone. Already the BOP has declined to renew an expiring contract for a 1,200 bed facility in New Mexico. The men will be moved to government run facilities. The announcement does not apply to private detention facilities managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the US Marshals Service.
The DOJ’s report highlighted widespread incompetence, including a finding that some prison clinics did not staff a single doctor. Patients sick with aids, cancer, mental illness and other infectious diseases received substandard care that resulted in dozens of deaths. Inadequate medical care and low quality food has resulted in the outbreak of multiple prison riots in recent years, contributing to the unsafe environments outlined in the report.
An investigation by The Nation found that the BOP was well aware of these violations and failed to correct the matters, crediting those in charge with the continued renewal of agreements with inadequate contractors.
In 2014, BOP spent $639 million on private prisons. The stock of America’s largest private prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, which receives half of its revenue from federal contracts, dropped more than 35% after the DOJ’s announcement.
“This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others.”
Tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s led to the explosion of the prison population and the increasing attractiveness of corporate run prisons. The federal use of private prisons began in the mid-1990s after it became a crime to re-enter the country following deportation. All but one of these prisons is used to house noncitizens, with 40% of the inmates convicted only of border crossing, and many of the rest for illegal drug possession.
However, the vast majority of private prisons are under the purview of state, not federal, governments, to which the DOJ announcement does not apply.