Department of Justice

Justice Department to End Contracts with Private Prison Companies

The move will only affect 13 prisons, or about 12 percent of the federal prison population.


Paul Hennessy/Polaris/Newscom

The Justice Department will end or significantly reduce its contracts with private prison companies, citing more safety problems and lesser quality of services, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

In a memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said private prisons "served an important role during a difficult time period," but safety incidents and other problems led her to conclude that they "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."

The private prison industry has been under intense scrutiny from media outlets and progressive activists, not to mention Democratic presidential candidates, but the decision will ultimately only affect 13 privately run federal prisons, which mostly house non-citizens. About 88 percent of federal prisoners are housed in facilities run by the government, as are vast majority of those incarcerated at the state and local level.

Yates cited a Justice Department Inspector General report released last week that found higher per capita rates of safety incidents, use of force, lockdowns, inmate discipline, and contraband than at facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons.

The report noted several high-profile safety incidents at privately run prisons, such as an inmate riot over alleged inadequate services that essentially destroyed a $60 million privately run federal prison in Texas.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Management & Training Corporation, one of three private prison companies the Justice Department contracts with, said "the facts don't support the allegations."

"Contract prisons have long provided valuable, cost efficient, and effective services to the BOP," the spokesperson said. "If the DOJ's decision to end the use of contract prisons were based solely on declining inmate populations, there may be some justification, but to base this decision on cost, safety and security, and programming is wrong."

In response letters to the inspector general report from CCA and GEO Group, the two other companies the Justice Department contracts with, 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."

The Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private prison companies in 1997 to help curb overcrowding. However, 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.

As the Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason magazine) has pointed out before, the federal and state systems will still have to absorb the populations of current privately operated prisons somehow if their use is discontinued. An Inspector General report from earlier this year found chronic medical staff shortages at BOP facilities—due to trouble competing with private employers—contributed to lack of access to medical care for inmates.

The Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2015 found private prisons housed 141,921, or 9 percent, of the total 1.57 million federal and state inmates in 2013.