DOJ to phase out private prisons, citing safety and security concerns

The US Justice Department will begin to roll back contracts for private companies that manage federal prisons, the administration said Thursday. 

J. David Ake/AP/File
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on June 28, 2016. The Justice Department says it’s phasing out its relationships with private prisons after a recent audit found the private facilities have more safety and security problems than ones run by the government. Yates instructed federal officials to significantly reduce reliance on private prisons.

The US Justice Department will phrase out contracts with private prisons, the Obama administration said Thursday, ending a practice that has come under criticism from Democratic presidential candidates during the primaries, and adding to the administration's growing record on criminal justice reform. 

Officials should decline or reduce private contracts when they come up for review, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed in a memo. A recent report from the department's inspector general found that private prisons are less safe than government-run facilities, prompting the department to phase them out. 

“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,” Ms. Yates wrote in the memo, reprinted by The Washington Post. 

The Justice Department currently has contracts with 13 private prisons, all of which are scheduled to run out within the next five years, Yates told the Post. As of last December, about 12 percent of all federal inmates were housed in private prisons.

The inspector general's report on prison conditions, which was released last week, reviewed eight categories of safety and security incidents, including sexual misconduct, inmate discipline, and lockdowns. It found that private facilities experience more safety incidents per capita than publicly-run facilities.

According to the report, inmates in several contract prisons experienced, at times, a number of health, safety, and security concerns, including poor quality food, poor medical care, low staffing levels, and low discipline, the types of conditions which helped contribute to security incidents and physical damage. Contract prisons saw 28 percent more incidents of inmate-on-inmate assault, for example, and 86 percent of contract prisons underwent lockdowns over the period surveyed, compared to 43 percent of government-run prisons. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is currently in charge of monitoring prison conditions and responding to safety and security noncompliance, must do more to prevent federal inmates from being at risk while housed in contract prisons, the Justice Department concluded.

The US government first began contracting to private prison facilities in 1997, according to the report, in order to alleviate overcrowding and cramped conditions as the number of inmates grew from around 25,000 in 1985 to 219,000 in 2012 – a number that has now declined to less than 195,000. 

Over the past year, contract prisons have come in for criticism on the campaign trail. In September 2015, former Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) introduced the “Justice is Not for Sale” act before Congress, seeking the end of private prisons.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has also called for an end to private prisons, saying while campaigning that, "we should end private prisons and private detention centers."

Despite the Justice Department's report, some say that the government has drawn an erroneous conclusion, and that the Justice Department's conclusion regarding the safety of contract prisons tried to compare "apples and oranges."

Private prisons tend to house more noncitizen inmates, contractors told The Washington Post, protesting the department's decision.

The Justice Department's instructions, however, will not affect states, which can still choose to contract out to private prisons. Both Texas and Louisiana contract out to private prison companies, according to Reuters.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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