U.S. Justice Department officials plan to phase out their use of private prisons to house federal inmates, reasoning that the contract facilities offer few benefits for public safety or taxpayers.
In making the decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates cited new findings by the Justice Department's inspector general, who concluded earlier this month that a pool of 14 privately contracted prisons reported more incidents of inmate contraband, higher rates of assaults and more uses of force than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
"They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and ... they do not maintain the same level of safety and security," Yates wrote in a memo Thursday.
At their peak, contract prisons housed approximately 30,000 federal inmates. By May 2017, that number will have dropped by more than half, to 14,000, Yates wrote. The Bureau of Prisons tends to use contract facilities to confine inmates who require only low security and who tend to be in the country illegally. The U.S. government spent $639 million on those facilities in fiscal year 2014, according to the inspector general report, in payments to three companies: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp.
The Justice Department announcement will not touch the vast majority of prisoners in the country who are incarcerated by state and local authorities. But federal officials hope their decision will be a model across the correctional field.
Last month, the DOJ declined to renew a contract for 1,200 prison beds in a private facility. And it is making changes to a new contract bid to reduce the size of demand there, too.
In a blog post to department employees, the deputy attorney general pointed out that the federal prison population has been dropping overall, to fewer than 195,000 inmates, because of a shift in how low-level, nonviolent drug criminals are treated. Yates did not shut the door on demand for private contract facilities in the future, however, and a new presidential administration could handle the issue differently.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, nonetheless said the Justice Department announcement represented a "major milestone in the movement away from mass incarceration."
"It has been a stain on our democracy to permit profit-making entities to be handed the responsibility of making determinations of individual liberty," Mauer said in a prepared statement. "Today's action moves us closer to a moment when government can once again assume this important responsibility."
Jamie Fellner, a former prison researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, "when the government does delegate, it's done a bad job of supervising" and adjusting the contracts accordingly.
"When private prisons fail as the inspector general suggests was going on with these particular ones, it's not just somehow because private business can't do corrections," Fellner said. "The principal overriding reason is ... [the Bureau of Prisons] failed to require contractually core best practices and standards; two, failed to supervise; and three, it failed to enforce the contracts. It just kind of keeps rolling over."
Immigrant advocates have for years lodged similar complaints — understaffing, poor medical care, increased security risks — at for-profit detention facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrants. The Bureau of Prisons, at its height, housed only 15 percent of federal inmates in for-profit prisons. ICE reports that it currently holds 73 percent of its detainees in private jails. (Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET on Aug. 19 with ICE statistics.)
Because ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security, the new Justice Department rule does not affect immigrant lockups.
An ICE statement released Thursday afternoon points out that immigrant detention facilities are different from federal prisons in that they only hold detainees temporarily. "ICE detention is solely for the purpose of either awaiting the resolution of an individual's immigration case or to carry out a removal order. ICE does not detain for punitive reasons," wrote an unnamed ICE official.
The statement continues that the Office of Detention Oversight conducts independent reviews of ICE detention facilities to be certain they comply with detention standards.
NPR's John Burnett contributed to this story.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. Justice Department has announced it wants to phase out its use of private prisons for housing federal inmates. The department says government facilities are cheaper and safer. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now. And, Carrie, give us some context here. Who will be affected by this decision to close private prisons?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A slice of the current federal prison population, Audie. There are about 193,000 federal inmates now. About 22,000 of them live in federal contract prisons. These are mostly men, low-security inmates so not a huge risk. And they're people who are here in the U.S. illegally. They live in one of 14 private contract prisons around the country. But Justice says we won't see the impact right away.
It's phasing out contracts with three companies over the next five years or so.
CORNISH: You spoke with the deputy attorney general today. What reasons did she give for this move?
JOHNSON: Sally Yates told me this move has been under consideration for some months now. But in the end, the case was clear. Here's what she had to say.
SALLY YATES: The fact of the matter is that private prisons just don't compare favorably to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of safety or security or the services that they offer to the inmates there. The Bureau of Prisons does a better job. And now with our decline in the federal prison population, we have both the opportunity and, I think, importantly, the responsibility to do something about it.
JOHNSON: So Sally Yates is talking there about the drop in the federal prison population. Twenty-five thousand inmates have left the prison population over the last few years because of changes in punishment and drug sentences. So there's a lot more room in these government facilities, and there may not be as big a need for these federal contract prisons.
CORNISH: And then there is the issue of safety and security concerns. What evidence did the Justice Department kind of base this decision on?
JOHNSON: The deputy attorney general told me safety was a huge priority for them. The inspector general at Justice looked at the 14 private contract prisons and a smaller group of facilities that were operated publicly. And he found a lot of alarming things, Audie. More assaults, more use of force, more contraband like cell phones in these private facilities, lots of understaffing in critical jobs like corrections guards and medical workers.
And the watchdog also pointed out a corrections officer actually died in one of these private contract facilities four years ago in Mississippi.
CORNISH: Now, in the end, how do you look at this in terms of the trend of private prisons? How, like, significant is this step by the Justice Department?
JOHNSON: So a lot of advocates are very excited today. I would offer this note of caution. This announcement does not mean the end of private prisons. It won't have much bearing, if any, on most people locked up around the country because they're in state and local facilities, not federal ones. And it also doesn't touch people locked up in federal immigration detention.
The Department of Homeland Security says it's going to continue on this path. Still, researchers are telling me it's kind of a big deal because it's part of this long conversation we've been having about mass incarceration and how we treat crimes like drug offenses that may not be the most violent or involve guns. Crime trends could change over time. And the Justice Department says it is reserving the right to change its mind.
And, of course, depending on who wins the White House next year or takes the White House next year, the Executive Branch could change its mind too.
CORNISH: In the meantime, what's the next step? What should we be looking out for?
JOHNSON: So slowly, DOJ is reducing the number of people in these private facilities. It's also pushing Congress to act. It says there's real need for lasting change here in federal crime and punishment. Only Congress by changing the kinds of sentences it imposes on people can make this happen for real and for permanent times.
CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.