The DOJ Is Right to Ditch Private Prisons. But It Won't Do Much in Practice

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The DOJ Is Right to Ditch Private Prisons. But It Won't Do Much in Practice

Federal prisons phasing out the contracts will undoubtedly improve treatment for thousands of prisoners. But they are a tiny percentage of those behind bars

‘Private prisons make money off of the worst of all human instincts: to benefit from the misfortune of other people.’ (Photo: Dan Hallman/Getty Images)

Just a week after a scathing report decrying the condition of private prisons in the US, the Department of Justice announced Thursday that it would phase out their federal use by not renewing contracts for companies like GEO Group, Management of Training Corporation, and Correctional Corporations of America (CCA).

As many advocates have pointed out, ending contracts for private prisons won’t actually change much about the carceral landscape. The Federal Bureau of Prisons consists of less than 200,000 prisoners, and private prisons contain about 22,660 of those inmates. But it is a big deal in term of policy setting. By admitting that there are problems inherent in profiting off of the welfare of people most of America doesn’t seem to want to deal with, the DOJ is refusing a long-held narrative that the lives of these people don’t matter.

Private companies cutting corners to profit from the poor isn’t a new idea. Prisons here have a long history of privatization – San Quentin, now a state-run prison in California, was originally a for-profit prison in the 1850s. Not only did the inmates build the prison during the day and slept on a boat at night, one of the first lessees of the prison, a man named John F McCauley, decided to turn a profit by refusing to clothe and feed the inmates while administering extraordinarily hard punishments.

Lies of omission

Conditions were so dire that in the late 1850s, the State of California took over San Quentin by force and began running it. (It should be noted that McCauley sued and won compensation for his financial loss in the venture. Capitalism is a hard master to vanquish.)

The operation of prisons and jails thus mostly became the domain of the government, until the prison population boom in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons began outsourcing to companies that are both exchanged on the open market and hold a requirement to be profitable to shareholders. And they were immensely profitable. GEO and CCA were had a combined annual revenue of $3.3bn as of last year and spent nearly $25m on lobbying for laws in their favor. Most states and counties use some form of privatization to house, feed, care for, and monitor people.

Their money hasn’t hidden all their problems. The DOJ report cited problems like “property damage, bodily injury and the death of a Correctional Officer,” along with at least four riots, sexual assaults and deplorable medical care. The biggest riots – such as the one last year at Willacy Detention Center where inmates essentially took over the prison due to escalating concerns over conditions – have been in private prisons. And while prison guard unions in states like California wield great bargaining and lobbying power, guards for private prisons are hired with about as much aplomb and training (and pay) as a cashier at McDonalds. Guards matter because without adequate training and attractive pay and benefits, guards and inmates are in genuine danger.

The focus on the bottom line has further ramifications. Some departments boast that they provide no basic services for inmates, not even air conditioning when it’s over 100 degrees. Sally Yates, the Deputy Attorney General, declared that private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources”.

The new policy may not change a lot of these problems in the country’s multitude of prison systems. It doesn’t affect halfway houses and transitional services nor the ICE facilities leased to private companies by the Department of Homeland Security, which serve as immigrant detention centers for about 25,000 men, women and children. (In fact, ICE just renewed its contract with CCA for a prison to house women and children.) CCA has responded to the policy announcement by saying the federal government is only 7% of its businesses, although its stock prices plummeted about 40% after the announcement.

But it’s encouraging to see the government move toward admitting that privileging profits over people shortchanges one of society’s most vulnerable demographics. In a system where each item must be litigated – how many packets of ramen, how many family photos, how many books, how many band aids – private prisons make money off of the worst of all human instincts: to benefit from the misfortune of other people without even knowing who those people are.

To refuse to allow the wealthy to profit begins to pave the way for states and counties to do the same thing and end practices that are draining resources from already impoverished communities.

Jessica Pishko

Jessica Pishko is a San Francisco-based writer. She went to Harvard Law and focuses on criminal justice issues.

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