It’s no secret that private prisons are more poorly run and more dangerous than government-run correctional facilities. This month, the federal government acknowledged that its two-decade experiment with private prisons has run its course. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed the Bureau of Prisons to begin reducing the use of private prisons to house federal prisoners.
“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources,” Yates wrote. “They do not save substantially on costs” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” In other words, the rationale for using private prisons falls apart once outcomes compared to government prisons are taken into consideration. Phasing out the use of these expensive, inferior, violent institutions that have higher rates of assaults on guards and prisoners makes sense.
The federal government has contracts with 13 privately run prisons to house 22,600 federal prisoners. Yates instructed the bureau to allow these contracts to lapse. This was not well received in the for-profit world of private prisons. The government’s decision sent stocks of the companies tumbling because the government is such a big client. It pays the bills whether the service is subpar or not.
(The state of Florida has contracts with seven private prisons.)
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The federal government’s partnership has allowed private prisons to reap financial benefits for providing inferior services. The early promise that private prisons would be the key to dealing with burgeoning prisoner populations in general turned out to be illusory.
Today, the overall federal prisoner population spread out between the private-run prisons and the government-run prisons is a mere 195,000, reflecting a sharp decline in the population. This may be as good a time as any to get out of a bad relationship.
Even as the government is phasing out the use of private prisons for federal prisoners, it continues to do business with the same companies when it comes to the use of poorly run, crowded immigration detention centers.
Right now, there are 46 immigration detention centers housing 25,000 people. Many of the same shameful conditions that afflict private prisons are at play at immigration centers. A deputy attorney general may be writing a letter to immigration services similar to the one Yates wrote to the Bureau of Prisons in the not-too-distant future.