Feds Plan an End to Use of Private Facilities to House Inmates

By David Cruz

The announcement by the Department of Justice that it will begin the process of curtailing — with an eye toward ending — its use of private prisons to house federal inmates sent a financial jolt to two industry giants and affirmed what inmates’ rights advocates have been saying for years, that prisons for profit are bad business.

“We’re really excited about it; it’s an important first step,” said Alex Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own bureau facilities,” read the memo from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and … do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

Shalom said about 11 percent of all federal prisoners are held in privately-owned facilities.

“And what the memo didn’t say but what we’ve been saying for a long time is that they’re not accountable, they’re not accountable in the same way that government agencies are,” he added.

The private prison industry, boosted by aggressive sentencing laws that saw the federal prison population spike 800 percent since 1980, has now grown into a $5 billion a year sector. But now with the inmate population down over 11 percent, the department is divesting, directing the Bureau of Prisons to not renew expiring contracts and to severely downsize others. The news sent stocks of two major industry players — Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which together operate two-thirds of all federal prisons — plummeting, although they recovered somewhat today.

“Seeing that their market share went down so much means that investors are predicting that this’ll go beyond just the Bureau of Prisons,” noted Shalom. “Soon it’ll be immigration detention, soon it’ll be the states will kind of read the writing on the wall and say, you know, we want to get out of this dirty industry, as well.”

Because the DOJ directive does not cover immigration detention or halfway houses, which are still booming in New Jersey.

“As a matter of fact we have a mandate to hold in custody 34,000 immigrants every day and that part has been the biggest segment of the growth in the business of incarceration in America and that has not been touched at all,” said Serges Demefack, who coordinates the End Detention and Deportation program with the American Friends Service Committee.

In New Jersey, privately operated detention facilities in Essex and Union counties house more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants and thousands more citizens are held in privately-run halfway houses. Demefack says he hopes this week’s directive will send a signal to the industry — and to local governments who take their share of the profits — that their days of largesse are coming to an end.

“All prisons are unsafe. I think that’s the bottom line,” he added. “We don’t think that the rate we’ve seen prisons become such a huge part of our national budget. It’s a rate that needs to go down. We had hoped that the decision would have been more broader.”

But it is a positive first step and advocates now hope that the new trend in criminal justice will be less incentives to keep people locked up in order to bolster the bottom line.