Justice Department To Move Away From Using Private Prisons

Aug 19, 2016
Originally published on August 19, 2016 8:01 am
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The U.S. Justice Department has announced it will phase out the use of private prisons. According to the DOJ, private facilities just don't do as good a job as those run by the government. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports the move will affect thousands of federal prisoners locked up in what's known as contract facilities.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates says the move away from private prisons has been on the table for months.

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SALLY YATES: The fact of the matter is, is that private prisons just don't compare favorably to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of safety or security or the services that they offer to the inmates there. The Bureau of Prisons does a better job.

JOHNSON: Contracts to operate 14 private prisons cost the federal government more than $600 million a year. Justice Department watchdogs recently investigated the federal contract prisons. Inspector General Michael Horowitz says he found no cost saving to taxpayers and a lot more trouble.

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MICHAEL HOROWITZ: In recent years, disturbances in several contract prisons resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury and even the death of a correctional officer.

JOHNSON: Horowitz found more assaults, more use of force and eight times the number of contraband cellphones in the contract prison sites.

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HOROWITZ: Last year, we audited one of these contract prisons and found that it was regularly understaffed in crucial areas, including correctional officers and health service workers.

JOHNSON: Those findings worry justice leaders, including Sally Yates.

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YATES: Well, I don't think anybody could read that IG report and not be concerned about the safety and security and the quality of services that are provided by private prisons. And it certainly underscored concerns that we already had.

JOHNSON: About 22,000 federal inmates live in contract prisons, most of them men in the country illegally, in a low-security environment. By next May, only 14,000 will remain there. And that number will dwindle as Justice refuses to renew the private contracts when they expire.

The federal government began to turn to private prisons in 1997 when the drug epidemic and harsh sentences had overwhelmed capacity in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The environment is a lot different now - 25,000 fewer prisoners in the last few years alone because of changes in the way low-level drug offenders are punished. Again, Sally Yates.

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YATES: And it's that reduction in the prison population that gives us an opportunity to move away from our reliance on private prisons.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department move does not mark the end of the private prison industry. Federal immigration officials say they'll continue to use contract prisons for their detainees. Most of those people are waiting for a judge to rule on their immigration status. And across the nation, the vast majority of inmates are locked up in state and local facilities, not federal ones.

Marc Mauer is executive director of The Sentencing Project. Mauer says the Justice Department action still represents a milestone, especially if it prompts states to reduce their reliance on private prisons.

MARC MAUER: This is one more significant step towards a repudiation of the policies that have produced mass incarceration. Its impact on state and local governments remains to be seen. But I think it's yet another indication that policymakers across the board are reconsidering these very ineffective and unfair policies.

JOHNSON: Justice leaders say they've done what they can. Now, they say, it's up to Congress to act to make punishments more fair for many crimes. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.