America is phasing out the federal use of private prisons
DURING the third season of “Orange is the New Black”, a Netflix series about female jailbirds, the federal facility housing the protagonist felons is taken over by a private prison company. Life at Litchfield penitentiary, never a walk in the park, quickly deteriorates as cartoonishly crass executives cut costs and crowd the prison to maximise profits. This fictional turn of events isn’t so far from reality. Over the past two decades, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has signed contracts with corporations to help accommodate inmates in the country with the largest prison population in the world. Of the 2.3m people behind bars in America, 193,000 are serving time in federal prisons. And of those, around 22,000 are housed in facilities run by for-profit companies.
On August 18th, Sally Yates, the deputy attorney-general, issued a curt memo announcing that the Department of Justice would begin limiting its dealings with private prisons. Three years ago, she noted, when America’s prison population was at its peak, private prisons filled an important gap, helping to relieve overcrowding in federal facilities. But since 2013, the number of federal prisoners has fallen by about 13% and the number of private-prison inmates has fallen by nearly a quarter. With these declines, Ms Yates noted, deal-making with private prison companies has become less urgent. The for-profit prisons are also problematic. “[T]ime has shown that they compare poorly to our Bureau faciliites”, she wrote. The private prisons lack similar “correctional services” like “educational programmes and job training” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security”.
The Department of Justice will scrutinise each contract it holds with prison corporations—the biggest three of which are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group and Management & Training Corporation—and either cancel or curtail the relationship when the contracts come to an end. The plan will reduce and eventually end the department’s use of privately run prisons.
This is bad news for stockholders in CCA and the GEO Group; shares of both dropped precipitously upon the release of Ms Yates’s memo. Donald Trump will probably lament this development, too: during a town-hall meeting in the spring, he said, “I do think we can do a lot of privatisations, and private prisons…seem to work a lot better”. But civil-rights organisations that have long opposed for-profit prisons are cheered by this development. It comes on the heels of a harsh, 86-page inspector general’s report finding that the private prison industry sacrifices safety and security in the pursuit of profit; holds prisoners in solitary confinement only because beds are scarce in normal cells; and fails to provide inmates with sufficient services, including medical care.
The change in policy is a blow to the prison industry, but it hardly sounds a death knell for its business model. Plenty of private prisons with offloaded inmates from state-run facilities dot America. Around 100,000 state inmates are housed in for-profit institutions overall. Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Centre at Stanford Law School, thinks states will “take notice” of the change in federal policy but may not have “viable alternatives” in place to reduce dependence on private corporations. “You can’t build state prisons overnight”, she says. And the bigger question, Ms Mukamal notes, is whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will take the department’s lead. There is a daily average of about 34,000 immigrants detained or awaiting deportation, and 25,000 of those are held in facilities run by for-profit companies.