U.S. Department of Justice to phase out use of some private prisons

By Taylor Bishop Scott, M.A.

Officials for the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on August 18, 2016, that the use of private prisons managed under the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will be phased out in light of reports suggesting that private detention facilities are less effective and more harmful than publicly funded facilities (Zapotosky & Harlan, August 18, 2016). Private facilities were found to have higher rates of inmate assaults on other inmates and staff. Two examples stand out above the rest, including a 2012 riot involving 250 detainees that sparked over upset with low-quality food and medical care; the incident resulted in the injury of 20 people and the death of a correctional officer. Additionally, a reporter for Mother Jones covertly joined the staff of a Louisiana private prison and documented deplorable conditions, including a prisoner who was denied medical coverage and consequently lost fingers to gangrene, violence among inmates, and limited access to psychiatric professionals. The reporter concluded that brute force was most commonly used to resolve issues (Sullivan, July 3, 2016).

In addition to concerns about the unsafe conditions and ineffective mechanisms for rehabilitation, it is uncertain that private prisons provide any cost-savings to taxpayers; however, officials say that’s hard to determine and it’s possible that closures could increase expenses. Costs may be mitigated by the shrinking prison population duedue to changes in sentencing guidelines for low-risk drug offenders. In fact, the private prison industry benefited from three decades of harsh drug sentencing guidelines that corresponded with officials’ reluctance to expand federal prisons. The declining federal prison population presents an opportunity for the DOJ to reduce or terminate contracts; however, officials note that contracts will not be terminated immediately.

Relatedly, these decisions have been met resistance from the private prison industry, which is unsurprising given that investment shares for the companies primarily affected by the change have already dropped over 35%. A spokesperson for one prison company has publicly noted flaws with the reports and has stated the broader independent research suggests private prison outcomes are comparable or better than public prisons. Pushback may also arise from communities that are home to closing prisons; for instance, the sheriff in Cibola County, New Mexico, has explicitly said he believes a local closure will hurt his community.

Despite this level of resistance from affected stakeholders, these changes will only impact a fraction of those incarcerated, as only thirteen private facilities (approximately 22,000 prisoners) operate under the BOP. Consequently, the change will not directly affect the practices of state prisons, prisons under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS; e.g., Immigrations and Custom Enforcement [ICE]), or facilities managed by the U.S. Marshals Service (the agency that houses and transports federal prisoners until they are acquitted or convicted, at which time they are released or transferred to BOP facilities; US Marshals Service, n.d.). In fact, more than 70% of roughly 33,000 ICE detainees are placed in private facilities, and consequently, a large proportion of jailed immigrants are likely housed in hazardous facilities (Speri, August 18, 2016). Furthermore, states incarcerate the greatest number of people, estimated to be over 1.3 million people (of 2.3 million total; Wagner & Rabuy, March 14, 2016), and 5-7% of state inmates are held in private facilities (Carson, 2015).

Despite limitations, the phasing out of private prisons marks substantial progress and is fostering hope that the BOP policies will generate the impetus for broader change in the prison system. For example, many states model their practices after federal agencies, and some states even began closing for-profit facilities before the DOJ announcement (Davidson, August 26, 2016). Additional reform will certainly take time to implement because certain states and ICE have a large proportion of inmates in private facilities. In light of this momentum, some organizations are encouraging advocates to “strike while the iron is hot” by imploring DHS to also phase out contracts with private prisons (e.g., ACLU Action). ACLU notes that DHS is the prison industry’s leading consumer and alludes to the perverse incentives behind the privatization movement by highlighting the industry’s bottom line of profit over public safety and rehabilitation. Community Psychology also recognizes the need for facilitating humane rehabilitation practices as a mechanism to enhance social justice in our public service systems and leveraging empirical evidence for improving the effectiveness and efficiency in services funded by taxpayers.

Taylor Bishop Scott, M.A., is SCRA Administrative Coordinator and a community psychology doctoral candidate.

The content of this post was derived in part from an article written by Zapotosky & Harlan (August 18, 2016) in the Washington Post unless otherwise specified.