Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: End of For Profit Prisons or Just the Beginning?

By Nathan Hamme

Recently the U.S. Justice Department announced a shift in policy around the use of private, for-profit prisons to secure federal inmates. The decree signaled a phasing out of these institutions over the course of an approximately five year period.

Prompting this decision was an Office of the Inspector General report comparing federal prisons managed by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, and those managed by private entities on several key criteria – including safety of inmates, costs and services provided to the incarcerated. The takeaway? Private prisons “compare poorly to [Bureau of Prisons] facilities…do not save substantially on costs…and do not maintain the same level of safety and security”, according to comments from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The timing of the report was in part a reaction to an expose in Mother Jones depicting conditions in private facilities, authored by a writer posing as a security officer.

Since the decision, there has been a variety of feedback from the public. Many have rejoiced at putting an end to “profiting on incarceration.” Others have questioned the report’s methodology, given wildly differing uses and demographics in the respective prison populations. But, for the most part, there has been a lack of understanding about what the new policy actually does, and what the downstream effect will be on broader legal system.

First, some numbers to help provide context. There are approximately 115,000 prisoners in privately operated, for-profit prisons around the country. Only about 23,000 of those are housed at the 13 private federal facilities, and a subset of those inmates are outside the Bureau of Prison’s purview – utilized by other Justice Department agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. The total prison population in the United States is around 1.5 million.

Immediately, the proportions stick out. Less than 1 in 5 inmates in private facilities are at the federal level and impacted by the policy shift – the others are at state-level private facilities. And less than 1 in 10 inmates around the country are in the federal prison system to begin with, the remainder residing at state level facilities, which are run by state governments. Overall, the impact on your average prisoner is limited.

Symbolically, and in precedent, this is a victory for those subscribing to Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ belief that nobody should have a profit motive for incarceration (see the “Kids for Cash” scheme that added one inmate, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, to the prison population). There were many who doubted that privatization of a responsibility typically reserved for The Commons would provide better service at a lower cost, and this appears to be validation. And certainly federal policy has influenced actions at the state-level on many different subjects.

The broader hope is that this is a bellwether decision that strikes a blow at mass incarceration in the U.S. — a country with the world’s largest prison population.

But transfers from private federal facilities will happen over time, and the Bureau will not necessarily be closing any facilities in the immediate-term. The plan is to deny extension of private prison charters when they come up for review, which occurs every five years. And there is no guarantee that every facility will be included in the phase out.

Still, the momentum appears to be on the side of reform advocates. The prison population, according Todd Clear and Natasha Frost in their book The Punishment Imperative, has been in decline. Mandatory minimum sentences and “strike rules” have been phased back in some states. Long prison terms are typically reserved for violent and repeat offenders. And blowback to War on Drugs principles are manifesting in various forms, including ballot initiatives on the docket this December.

With few exceptions, the concepts surrounding rule of law and punishment in America have been anchored on our ability to rehabilitate those who stray from accepted behavior. Drug counseling and treatment programs have increasingly become a part of the incarceration experience – something many noted was absent from those detained in private facilities. And with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent restoration of voting rights to former felons who have served out their sentences, the redemptive foundation of the system is on full display.

While progressives have championed the announcement as the end of profiteering through ineffectual incarceration, the current status of the system is closer to stasis. Undoubtedly, however, a gauntlet has been thrown, and attention directed clearly upon our over-reliance on the “lock ‘em up” mentality.

And with recent focus on police brutality and harsh prison conditions – whose victims and residents remain drastically skewed towards minority populations – look for more prescriptions aimed at alleviating what has been a potential powder keg for inner city residents.