The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced plans on Thursday to phase out its use of private prisons.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued the decision in a memo instructing officials to either decline to renew contracts for private prison operators or to “substantially reduce” the scope of the contracts. The goal, Yates stated, is “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
The Inspector General’s report, released a week earlier, concluded that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run directly by the DOJ’s own Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The private facilities, for instance, had higher rates of assault—both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.
“This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, enthused to the Washington Post. “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.”
But it’s that hope which is the really critical thing.
As Vox points out, the vast majority of those incarcerated in the United States (a whopping 2.2 million souls, according to the Urban Institute) are housed in state prisons—not federal. Far more of these are privately run, and they are utterly unaffected by Yates’ memo.
Nor does the memo apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or U.S. Marshals Service detainees. These are federal agencies but not under the Bureau of Prisons. The memo only concerns the 13 privately-run facilities under the BOP—housing little more than 22,000 inmates, mostly low-security “criminal aliens” with little time left on their sentences. Homeland Security‘s ICE runs some 100 immigrant detention facilities, to the BOP’s 122 prisons, but far more of the of the ICE facilities are privately run.
The DOJ’s own statement on the new policy virtually admits that the use of private contractors began as a fix to an out-of-control system.
“The federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, often at a far faster rate than the Bureau of Prisons could accommodate in their own facilities,” that statement reads. The DOJ now has approximately 195,000 inmates in BOP or private contract facilities, down from a high in 2013 of approximately 220,000.
Keep in mind that the incidents of ghastly violence in private facilities that brought the issue to the public eye were in the state system, not federal. And overcrowding and inhumanity, even in facilities still run directly by the states, is an issue still screaming for attention—as the recent inmate hunger strikes in California’s gulag have made all too clear.