Federal Prisons

Inspector General Report Finds More Violence in Privately Run Federal Prisons

Inspectors found privately run federal prisons were also placing new inmates in isolation for lack of space.


Paul Hennessy/Polaris/Newscom

Violence and safety incidents are more common in privately contracted federal prisons than those managed by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), according to a report released this week by the Justice Department Inspector General.

An inspection by the Justice Department watchdog of three prisons run by the three largest private contractors in the U.S. revealed that privately run federal prisons "incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions. The privately run prisons had higher per capita rates of safety incidents, lockdowns, inmate discipline and contraband than comparable Bureau of Prisons facilities.

The use of private prisons has drawn considerable attention from civil liberties groups, media investigations, and liberal advocacy groups. Last year, inmates rioted and essentially destroyed a $60 million privately run federal prison in Texas over allegations of inadequate medical care and food. The inspector general report noted several other riots and disturbances in privately run federal prisons in recent years due to anger over substandard facilities.

The inspector general report also found privately run prisons were putting new inmates in isolation for lack of space. The only categories where private prisons outperformed their federal counterparts were lower rates of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct.

About 22,000 inmates, roughly 12 percent of the total federal prison population, are housed in private prisons, the report said. Most of them are undocumented immigrants. The prisons are run by three corporations: Corrections Corporation of America; GEO Group, Inc.; and Management and Training Corporation. The Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private prison companies in 1997 to help curb overcrowding, but as of December 2015, the BOP was still operating at 20 percent over capacity, despite the federal prison population dropping in 2014 for the first time in three decades.

Overcrowding appears to be a problem at private prisons, too. Inspectors found that two of the three facilities they visited "were improperly housing new inmates in Special Housing Units (SHU), which are normally used for disciplinary or administrative segregation, until beds became available in general population housing," contrary to BOP policies and American Correctional Association standards.

The report found the BOP also did not properly check whether inmates received "basic medical services." Inmates at privately run prisons filed more grievances over medical and dental care than at federally run facilities, although they filed fewer grievances overall.

However, federally run prisons are far from immune from similar problems.

Another Justice Department Inspector General report from earlier this year found medical staff shortages at BOP facilities—due to trouble competing with private employers—contributed to lack of access to medical care for inmates.

In response letters to the inspector general report from CCA and GEO Group officials, the companies cited the large population of foreign nationals and gang members in its facilities as a driving factor in the higher number of incidents. A CCA official wrote that the"criminal alien population housed in contract prisons" were "significantly more likely to be involved in violence and misconduct."

Since the inspections, the Justice Department Inspector General said the private prisons have corrected the problems it identified.

"However," the inspector general wrote, "we concluded that the BOP still must improve its oversight of contract prisons to ensure that federal inmates' rights and needs are not placed at risk when they are housed in contract prisons."

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  1. While I freely admit that private prisons have always worried me — bad incentives all over the place — the real problems all like upstream from imprisonment.
    First and foremost, of course, would be if we went back to jailing predominantly persons who represent a clear and present danger to others. It’s never been just about that, but the closer we get to that standard for prison sentences, the better we all will be.
    Illegal immigrants? Users or purveyors of illegal drugs? How on earth is anyone benefitted by locking those people up? Other than the jailers and their infrastructure system, of course.
    The US has the highest percentage of its population in prison of any civilized country. That is a genuinely horrifying statistic, and if it doesn’t change, we’re all doomed. [Okay, it’s Clump vs Trillary, we’re doomed anyway, but you get the idea.]

    1. Users or purveyors of illegal drugs?

      Worth pointing out/mentioning, especially in the context of the [scarequotes]opioid epidemic[/scarequotes] that we jail purveyors of legal drugs as well.

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  3. When you combine the efficiency of private corporations…

    with a violent, out-of-control customer like the state…

    does anyone doubt ththat result?

    I want a return to state-run prisons only. Then, when weget reports of violent, over-crowded prisons, people can just shrug and say “whatchagonnado”?

    1. “When you combine the efficiency of private corporations…

      with a violent, out-of-control customer like the state…

      does anyone doubt ththat result?”

      A more efficient version of an important service, which is also more responsive to criticisms because it lacks state sovereignty?

      I guess you were going for a more efficient tool of oppression or something?

    2. Watchagonnado when they come for you.
      Bad boys, bad boys…

      Sorry. Just had to.

  4. do you really believe that the government will make an honest report about its competition. Remember the government doe not like competition even when the competition is as small as giving food to your own neighbor.

    1. Ron-
      Good point. I was immediately suspicious based on the source.

    2. Private prisons are hardly in “competition” with government. The government is the client of private prisons.

      1. IOW , private prisons are not really private, at all.

        1. Correction:

          The government is the *ONLY* client of private prisons.

      2. See this thread.

        Reason Magazine over the years has done a lot of good promoting privatization and contracting out. Of all the ideas that they have promoted “private prisons” were the only really bad idea.

        Thought that when the articles appeared in the 70s and 80s. Not because of the private part but because, while some form of restraint or detention might be necessary, prison in their conventional form are a really bad idea.

  5. “This report is bogus. The Libertarian Moment? has assured me that private cops, courts, judges and prisons are the pathway to Total Freedom. And don’t even get me started on private armies! (I’ll be in my bunk.)”

    Your post is bunk. These prisons are paid for by the gov’t, ran by contractors. The same way shipbuilding for the Navy experiences contracting and procurement abuses that go back to building the USS Constitution, these same problems exist throughout gov’t.

    Ever hear of the high speed rail boondoggles? So called private contractors are used to build it. So does that mean the free market couldn’t operate and build railroads efficiently? No, the evidence is to the contrary. Look at the beginning of rail in this country. Folks like James J. Hill outperformed gov’t rail in both effectiveness and efficiency, and he didn’t rely on subsidies, and actually purchased land from ppl, rather than steal it.

    Please do start on private armies. Because your argument void of history is so entertaining. Seems you forgot about the privateers, corsairs and private shipbuilding. They were far more efficient, where their ships were built without the cost overruns that mysteriously affected ships built and funded by the gov’t. That same phenomena exists today, while private shipbuilding doesn’t experience these problems. Also, the privateers outperformed the gov’t ships, and were less violent.

    1. Continued.

      As for the private production of security/policing. Threat management center in Detroit blows your nonsensical argument away. They are privately funded, and also offer their services to protect those who can’t afford their services. They don’t go around extorting ppl through imposed property taxes for their funding. And if you don’t wish to use their services, they don’t force them upon you, and confiscate your property when you can’t pay.

      Ebay’s private arbitration is yet another non violent means of getting a customer compensated for a product that is either misrepresented or was never sent. No SWAT team is needed to barge through the door of an Ebay seller who forgot to ship out an item or what have you. Ebay sellers face consequenses through ratings. Many want to stay in business, and don’t want a bunch of horrible reviews impacting it.

      Take your strawmen home with you.

    2. I think it’s also worth noting that contracted services to the government are almost always more transparent than in-house government services, because there is rivalry among contractors and between the government and the contractors. While there is some interdepartmental rivalry within government agencies, it is rarely exposed to the public. There are all kinds of exceptions to FOIA, and a lot of the really juciy bits won’t end up on paper/in electronic form anyway. One of the few ways that governmental abuses can get exposed to the public is when somebody goes to Congress, and that’s a good way to catch the wrong sort of attention (loss of position, loss of pay/benefits, loss of employment, even prosecution in some cases). Few civil servants want to take those risks.

  6. The libertarian instinct here is to go “they’re lying”.

    I don’t think they’re lying. Those companies are probably not doing their jobs that well.

    But with three big companies doing your business, you at least have the capability to go to the worst one and say “hey! Fix this, this, and this by the next time we look into this or we’re sending all your business straight to the best one!”

    Such ultimatums on performance are a wee bit difficult with government agencies.

    1. When you attempt it, they call you a “terrorist”.

      P.S. I have no sympathy for actual terrorists. Calling someone who wants to move to a better provider of a service a “terrorist” is an assault on the language.

    2. All a public private partnership does is shield a company from market consequenses, and transfers the risk to the taxpayers, who are forced to pay regardless.

      The extortees “taxpayers” can’t shut the project down, or refuse to fund whatever adventure the gov’t and their favored contractors engage in.

      1. Derp.

  7. Justice is repayment; “an eye for an eye”. Justice is never being locked in box, unless I suppose the aggressor had locked someone in a box…

    But it’s up to the victim or victim’s next of kin to determine if the aggressor should repay all, some, or none of what they’ve taken (after a fair trial, of course).

    Of course prisons are corrupt, they can never be true justice except in the most odd of cases!

  8. “Another Justice Department Inspector General report from earlier this year found medical staff shortages at BOP facilities?due to trouble competing with private employers?contributed to lack of access to medical care for inmates.”

    So even when the govt prison fails, the blame is on capitalism.

    1. First and always, capitalism is to blame (when statists provide the data).

  9. I know everybody wants prisoners to be treated in a cruel and inhumane way, but I’ve always wished for a truly competitive private prison industry in which private prison companies are expected to adhere to certain standards of security and are allotted a certain amount of money per prisoner per month, but the prisoners themselves are the ones deciding which prison to be housed in. Make transfers relatively easy, and a lot of the issues you see in prisons (violence, gangs, recidivism) would probably decline as private companies competed to treat prisoners as well and as humanely as they could.

    1. In order for a private system of justice to work, certain conditions need to exist. IE ancient Ireland that had no central gov’t, and relied on private justice through Brehon law. Somehow without police forces, SWAT teams, etc. it managed to be effective. Judges would be held personally liable for bad decisions/bribery, etc.

      With the founders, they never would have thought, nor accepted the notion of state by state standing armies, and gov’t actors shielded by qualified immunity.

      Based upon mans law, folks are either killed, or jailed for victimless crimes. The whole way crimes and aggressions against the liberty of others are dealt with would be far different than it is today.

      Some might say, but there will be armed people hell bent on forcing services on people, and confiscating a large fraction of the fruits of their labor. Well, that already exists on a large scale today. Just because individuals are blind to this, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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