In a memo dated Aug. 18, Department of Justice officials announced that they would be taking steps to reduce and ultimately end contracts with privately-owned prison groups. Progressives across the U.S. rejoiced at the end of the practice that has seen much public scrutiny.
That rejoicing, however, was short lived as the full impact of the DoJ statement came to light.
Before we take a look at the current DoJ standing, let us examine a brief history of the private prison industry. According to a recent Mother Jones article, the first private prison corporation was founded in 1983 as Corrections Corporations of America. The GEO Group, another private prison corporation soon formed. These companies saw a boom in their profits that was fueled by the “prisoner boom” that was caused by the introduction of truth in sentencing and three strikes laws.
Through the 2000’s federal investigations into several prisons ran by CCA and the GEO Group revealed that the facilities had substandard conditions, under-trained staff, overcrowded jails (one of the reasons state and federal agencies hired CCA and GEO to begin with), reports of rampant physical and sexual abuse, among other conditions.
While the current DoJ decision gets us back on the right track of returning prisons to the public domain, where they can be properly funded with no regard for profit, the decision itself only affects a small number of private institutions.
In an ABC News article, Paul Blake reports the Justice Department decision only affects prisons under the control of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This does not include other federal detention centers such as those run by U.S. Marshall Service or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nor does it account for privately owned prisons and jails at the state and local level.
What does this mean for companies like CCA and GEO? Only 10-15 percent of their current prison holdings will be closing. The other 85-90 percent will remain open under other federal agencies, or state and local governments.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates writes in the Department of Justice memo, “They [private prisons] 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.” And I couldn’t agree more.
In our quest for criminal justice reform, we must constantly seek to improve the conditions of detention facilities and work on policies that seek to reform behaviors instead of simply locking people away. Out of sight, out of mind is the current policy that we take towards prisons and those they house.
But I say no more. The Justice Department decision has started us in the right direction, but it is now up to local and state governments along with other federal agencies to commit to continuing down the path of criminal justice reform.