The One Thing You Need To Know About The Justice Department Ending Use Of Private Prisons

Like gun reform, marijuana decriminalization, or abortion laws, reforming the prison system in the U.S. is a big ol’ tangled mess made worse because of the disparities between federal and state legislation and funding regulations. Which is why Thursday’s announcement that the Justice Department is ending the use of private prisons is good news, but not the end of the shitty prison system altogether.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote a memo stating that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will not renew contracts with private prison operators, or at least “substantially reduce their scope” as they come up. All of them will be up for renewal within the next five years, so no private prison is closing tomorrow. The real kicker is that most privately run prisons are funded and contracted on a state level, even though they house federal inmates.

There are just 13 prisons funded by the federal BOP, which means most private facilities and inmates won’t be affected by this admittedly progressive step by the Justice Department. And many federally run, private facilities serving as detention centers for immigrants won’t be affected by this decision because they’re run by the Department of Homeland Security, which is an entirely separate dumpster fire.

To give you an idea of the small scope of Thursday’s decision, there are 1.6 million state and federal prisoners overall in the U.S. According to Pro Publica, there were 128,195 prisoners in private facilities overall as of December 2010. Of that population, only about 27,000 were overseen by the BOP in privately run facilities. So, the new decision affects a very teeny tiny population of inmates.

That’s no reason to not give a small clap for the Justice Department’s decision, because private facilities are terrible and any attempt at reforming the system has to start somewhere, if you want to take a glass-half-full look at the situation.

Yate’s announcement comes on the heels of a scary report by the inspector general last week that found private prisons, run by some of the largest private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation, are just fucking terrible compared to prisons run by the BOP. Some of the findings in the report:

  • Private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults per capita from 2011-2014.
  • In private facilities, officials found twice as many cell phones and weapons in private facilities than in BOP run prisons.
  • Private prisons are on “lockdown” more frequently, to the point where inmates even missed medical appointments. There were 101 private prison lockdowns to the BOP’s 11 lockdowns.
  • Due to overcrowding, private prisons were also finding “special” housing solutions, like solitary confinement.

According to The Washington Post, Yates said the growing number of private detention centers was related to the increase in prisoners about 10 years ago, but the number of federal prisoners has been on the decline since 2013. It was cheaper to outsource prison management, but “you get what you pay for,” she said.

Ending the use of private prisons is also part of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s platform, even though her campaign just stopped taking money from private prison companies months ago. If she wants to make good on that promise, there’s a lot of negotiating that’s going to have to happen. And the private prison industry will surely be a little butthurt now that it’s stocks are plummeting due to the announcement that a mere 13 facilities won’t get to renew their contracts.