The U.S. Department of Justice made a landmark announcement in August–they will phase out private prisons, which house the majority of non-citizens convicted of federal crimes and are known for their substandard conditions, over the next five years.
Since the 1990s, two major legal changes have caused U.S. prison populations, already the largest per capita in the world, to escalate dramatically. The first was a crime bill signed into law by President Clinton, which increased the number of drug-related prosecutions. The second, some years later, was the criminalization of immigration offenses—illegal entry and re-entry into the U.S., once handled as civil matters, have been increasingly prosecuted as federal crimes. To house the rising number of inmates—and with the goal of keeping costs down—the U.S. government contracted with private corrections companies, opening thirteen privately operated facilities since 1996, eleven of which are used exclusively for non-citizens. With the Department of Justice’s recent decision to phase out private prison contracts, these correctional facilities, approximately one-eighth of the federal prison system, will be closed within the next five years.
Why are non-citizen inmates relegated to these private prisons? In large part, it is because one key area of cost-cutting is in training programs and support services for re-entry into society once a prisoner’s time is served. Since non-citizens are there for immigration crimes, the majority will be deported to home countries upon release. (Note: The Department of Homeland Security also engages private corrections companies to operate immigration detention facilities—the same companies that manage the private prisons, in fact—but these are a separate, though related, system from the federal prisons overseen by the Bureau of Prisons.)
Overall, the economic cutbacks in private prisons have contributed to substandard conditions, poor staffing, and inferior medical care, the latter of which is responsible for numerous inmate deaths and four riots (spurred by protests about unaddressed medical complaints). Though these failures have been well-documented over the years and some constitute human rights violations, a year-long probe and report by the U.S. Inspector General found that for-profit prisons are more dangerous than government-run facilities and has prompted overdue action and the DOJ’s announcement. At the same time, Jeh C. Johnson, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, issued a memo calling for a full review of immigration detention facilities with an eye toward moving in the same direction. That report is due at the end of November.
These long-recognized failures of private prisons have come about for a range of reasons. Here are some of the factors:
The Bottom Line: The U.S. government frequently engages the private sector for various projects, for both economic and expediency reasons. In the case of private federal prisons, cost-cutting was the primary motivation to contract with private correction companies who are accustomed to minimizing expenditures in order to maximize profit. This goal inherently contradicts providing quality programs and services. Short cuts, indefinitely postponed repairs, understaffing, undertraining, and subcontracting for substandard medical care become common practice. And since there is no larger marketplace to keep such unethical practices in check (more about monitoring by the U.S. government, below) and demand quality services and programs (see “Lower Standards,” below), shareholders are served while inmates suffer. Economically speaking, the private sector is exactly the wrong realm in which to entrust human beings while demanding low cost, and it’s not surprising that federal prisons run by the U.S. government exhibit more acceptable conditions and have more comprehensive programming and services.
Lower Standards: The U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) requires government-run prisons to meet standards stipulated in “program statements.” These statements lay out hundreds of rules regarding staffing, meal schedules, medical care, etc. that public federal prisons must follow. In contrast, only a few dozen program statements apply to private prisons, another cost-saving measure that results in lower standards across the board. In the area of medical care, for example, private prisons often engage vocational nurses, who have one year of training, to diagnose and treat inmates when a doctor or nurse practitioner would be called for. In this, ten private prisons were found to have violated state practice laws in hiring low-level medical professionals to operate outside their scope of practice. In one prison, an inmate complained of head pain on 18 occasions; each time, he was seen by low-level medical staff, prescribed Tylenol, and returned to his cell. When he finally collapsed and was rushed to a nearby hospital, he was diagnosed with AIDS-related ailments, from which he died some days later. According to BOP rules, HIV testing for all inmates is compulsory, and several medical reviewers concurred that had the inmate been tested as required, he would be alive today.
No Facility Uniformity: Three correction companies—Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group, and Management and Training Corporation—manage the 13 private prisons in the BOP system, but none of these prisons, even those operated by a single company, resemble each other or employ uniform design standards for their structures. Instead, the companies find facilities they can convert to prison use. And so, one prison houses inmates in large Kevlar fabric tents, another in bunk beds arranged a few feet apart, still another in an adapted Air Force base and adjacent hotel. The result is often inferior cell conditions and overcrowding.
Conflicts of Interest: Contracts are enforced with on-site monitors who report violations of the already minimal standards private correction companies must meet, with more formal inspections every 6–12 months. These on-the-ground monitors have reported ongoing problems and violations for years, often recommending steep fines. However, the BOP has frequently reduced or excused these fines, even renewed contracts for failing facilities that should have been shut down. A likely reason is the close ties between the BOP and the private prison industry, which often hires former BOP officials at very attractive private-sector salaries. This failure to impose fines and close facilities has left underlying profit motives unchecked and unacceptable prison conditions unaddressed.
Separation from Family and Community: In 2015, more than 70,000 people were charged with illegal entry or re-entry, representing about half of all federal prosecutions. Currently, somewhere between 40 and 50% of the 22,000 prisoners incarcerated in privately operated federal prisons are non-citizens. In addition to suffering the harsher conditions of private prisons disproportionately, these foreign-born inmates are frequently more isolated from their families and communities than their U.S.-born counterparts. The families of non-citizen inmates are frequently in other countries and so cannot visit, support or advocate for them. Often, families are not even aware of their loved one’s status or well-being. In one tragic story, an immigrant inmate’s family did not hear news of his death for a year, and did not learn that the young man had committed suicide until a journalist contacted them while researching an article.
The decision to close private federal prisons is good news for civil rights, human rights, and migrant rights advocates as well as for the inmates themselves and taxpayers who have paid for two decades of failed prison privatization. Over the next five years, as contracts lapse and privately-run institutions close, the BOP could follow some of the recommendations put forth in a 2014 report from the American Civil Liberties Union—strengthen oversight and publicly post inspection results; set reasonable phone rates for inmates to communicate with their families; eliminate quotas designed to fill beds; end discrimination against non-citizen inmates with respect to work, education and programming opportunities; and allow non-governmental agencies and the media access to facilities, so that public opinion can contribute to making private corrections companies accountable.
MORE INFORMATION: For more background on the history of private prisons in the U.S. and the conditions in these facilities, please see the following:
- Comprehensive coverage of private prison conditions by Seth Freed Wessler in The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/federal-officials-ignored-years-of-internal-warnings-about-deaths-at-private-prisons/.
- A National Public Radio interview with Seth Freed Wessler about his investigative research into private prisons on Fresh Air: http://www.npr.org/2016/08/25/491340335/investigation-into-private-prisons-reveals-crowding-under-staffing-and-inmate-de.
- The American Civil Liberties Union’s groundbreaking report, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System: https://www.aclu.org/warehoused-and-forgotten-immigrants-trapped-our-shadow-private-prison-system.