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Some private federal prisons place newly-admitted inmates in solitary confinement because of lack of space, the report found. (Photo:

Revealed: Private Federal Prisons More Abusive and Violent

Damning Department of Justice report finds that privately owned federal prisons cause more bodily injuries and even death

Nika Knight

Private federal prisons are more abusive, violent, and dangerous than their government-run counterparts, according to a frightening report published this week by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General.

"Federal officials should be reconsidering their alliance on private prisons and developing plans to begin cancelling these contracts, rather than continuing this experiment."
—Carl Takei, ACLU
The report [pdf], which examined prisons owned and operated by GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation, and the controversial and very notorious Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), discovered that inmates in those facilities "were nine times more likely to be placed on lockdown than inmates at other federal prisons and were frequently subjected to arbitrary solitary confinement," the Guardian reports.

Moreover, for-profit prisons "almost exclusively incarcerate low risk inmates convicted of immigration offenses," the Guardian notes.

"This is due to a new trend in the past decade of criminally prosecuting people for reentering the country rather than merely processing them through the civil deportation system," said Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Prison Project, to the Washington Post. "The result is that people serve sometimes-lengthy prison sentences in [Federal Bureau of Prisons] custody before … going through civil deportation proceedings."

"These facilities house around 22,000 individuals, mostly deemed 'low risk,' at an annual cost of $600m," according to the Guardian.

When including state-level private prisons, those incarcerated in such facilities number in the tens of thousands. As progressive think tank In the Public Interest (ITPI) reported [pdf] last month, "As of December 2015, CCA owned 47 facilities with a capacity of 68,000 prisoners, and GEO Group owned 36 facilities with a capacity of 44,000 prisoners."

A map shows the locations and populations of privately owned federal prisons. (Image: U.S. Department of Justice)

The conditions inmates endure in such facilities are grim. The report authors wrote that at two of the three prisons they visited, they "learned that all newly received inmates were housed in the SHU [Segregated Housing Unit, or solitary confinement] due to lack of available bed space in general population housing units."

The United Nations and former inmates alike have described solitary confinement as a form of torture.

One facility also lacked a doctor on staff for a full eight months, and there was no dentist on staff for six weeks, preventing inmates' access to "basic healthcare," the report observed. The lack of medical care was deadly in at least one case, the report authors discovered:

In one instance, when an inmate had trouble breathing, the contract prison medical staff told him to place a sick call, which would put him on a list of inmates waiting to be seen by medical personnel instead of being treated immediately. However, after he died, the mortality reviews showing this deficiency gave the onsite monitors no guidance on what steps to take to require corrective action. As a result, contractor deficiencies went uncorrected and corrective actions were delayed.

At privately owned facilities, inmates were more likely to submit complaints about medical care, their treatment at the hands of correctional officers, and the quality of food—and to face violence. Violent encounters between inmates were 28 percent more prevalent than at government-run facilities, the report found.

"This is the latest in a whole series of reports and investigations that have found very serious issues with Bureau of Prisons shadow systems of private prisons," said Takei to the Guardian.

Takei added: "Federal officials should be reconsidering their alliance on private prisons and developing plans to begin cancelling these contracts, rather than continuing this experiment."

Despite its own damning findings, it doesn't seem that the federal government is planning to abandon the private prison project.

The Guardian reports: "The inspector general recommends that the Justice Department should convene a 'working group' to probe the causes of the disparity in safety standards between contract prisons and publicly operated facilities, and states that federal government should strengthen oversight provisions across the board." 

Meanwhile, CCA is "actively marketing" a New Mexico prison recently closed by the federal government—meaning the company is seeking new state and federal contracts to incarcerate more people to fill its for-profit facility, reports the Huffington Post.

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