Story and photo by Miriam Raftery
Photo: Federal immigration detention facility in Otay Mesa run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company exposed for abusive actions at other locations investigated
August 21, 2016 (Washington D.C.) — Private, for-profit prisons are more dangerous and less effective than government-run prisons, a new report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General concludes. On August 18th, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Justice Dept. will be “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”
Use of private prisons began as a response to the federal prison population growing nearly 800 percent from 1980 to 2013, in part due to new mandatory sentencing laws. By 2013, 15% of federal prisoners, or about 30,000 inmates, were in private prisons. By December 2015, that number had dropped to 22,000.
According to the Inspector General’s report, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent $639 million on outsourcing convicts to for-profit prisons in 2014. But in recent years, “disturbances in several l federal contract prisons resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury, and the death of a correctional officer.” That report analyzed 14 contract prisons and found they were worse than government-run prisons in most categories including higher rates of assaults by inmates, contraband seized, lockdowns and more. The report also found prisoners were thrown into solitary confinement without justification for extensive periods, a violation of federal rules. Some inmates were even denied basic medical care.
The announcement by the DOJ to drop private prisons came after Mother Jones magazine published an epic 35,000 word investigative report written by a reporter who went undercover as a private prison guard for four months at a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) private prison in Louisiana.
His report revealed a pattern of guards engaging in or turning a blind eye to violence, abuse and neglect. One prisoner denied medical care despite nine requests lost both legs two fingers to gangrene. There was no full-time psychiatrist for 15,000 inmates. The company also cut corners food, medicine, and even security costs to maximize profits; one prisoner escaped while guard towers were unmanned.
Halting use of private prisons by the Department of Justice won’t happen instantly. But existing contracts will either not be renewed or substantially reduced, according to Yates.
Private prisons are used by other federal agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has a detention center in Otay Mesa locally run by private prison contractor CCA—the same contractor exposed for allowing horrific abuses in the Mother Jones exposé.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called Thursday’s announcement “an important first step in addressing this unacceptable situation, but it is not enough. We must insist that these changes are adopted by all federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which relies heavily on private prisons even for housing vulnerable women and children. Incarceration should not be a for-profit business,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
Some states including California also rely on private prisons.
As of August 2016, California has roughly 6,000 state prisoners in two privately operated correctional centers in Arizona and Mississippi to relieve prison overcrowding: the La Palma Correctional Facility, and the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility. The state also contracts with the GEO Group to operate one 700-bed in-state facility, the Golden State Medium Community Correctional Facility in McFarland, California, and leases and operates the California City Correctional Center, which is owned by Corrections Corporation of America.
In response to the Department of Justice's recent decision to end the use of private prisons, the Southern Border Communities Coalition released the following statement:
The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) applauds the Department of Justice's decision to phase out the use of private prisons. When it comes to these corporate- run detention facilities, the jury is out: they are more violent, more prone to abuses and less safe for everyone. We call on the Department of Homeland Security to do the same and put an end to these abusive private detention facilities, which will always put profit before people. Every year, thousands of immigrants and their families are thrown into these facilities and routinely abused; some are even killed. SBCC will continue to fight to end these inhumane facilities and provide a voice for those who can not speak up.