[CN] – The Justice Department said Thursday it will try to phase out private prison contracts, after an audit found they have more safety and security problems than government-run prisons.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said she instructed federal officials to significantly reduce reliance on private prisons.
In December 2015, more than 22,000 federal inmates — about 12 percent of them — were in private prisons, according to an August report from the Department of Justice Inspector General.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Tens of thousands of immigration detainees today are in prisons or de facto prisons, some of them run by religious organizations, on private contracts with the government.
Since their inception, “private prisons” have been fiercely contested by human rights attorneys and their clients, who view them, in essence, as federal and state cession of constitutional protections to profit-seeking corporations.
Among the frequently litigated complaints are these:
* that private contracts make it hard or impossible to get information about conditions in the prisons through state and federal Freedom of Information Act requests;
* that federal and state governments and the private contractors use private contracts for precisely this reason — to cover up abuse of vulnerable people, and fight litigation;
* that it’s unclear where liability may lie if, for instance, a private prison guard kills an inmate: With the private corporation? With the Justice Department? With the Bureau of Prisons?
* whether the private contracts skew justice — that federal contracts guaranteeing private companies millions of dollars a year to imprison people encourage state and federal governments to lock up people who are not criminals: because the government paid the bill for it in advance.
The nation’s two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo Group, have been privately sued more than 2,250 times, often on claims of abuse, according to the Courthouse News database. Allegations include rape by prison guards, torture, and denial of access to counsel.
How It Started
The federal government began contracting with private prison companies in the 1984, in Houston, to imprison immigration detainees fleeing war in Central America. It issued a second contract to Corrections Corporation of America in 1985, for the first private prison designed to jail mothers and babies seeking political asylum.
In 1986, the Department of Justice contracted with the Bureau of Prisons to jail immigration detainees in Oakdale, La. At the time, “entry without inspection” was a civil infraction — not a crime.
Since then, despite the raft of lawsuits, the U.S. private prison industry has exploded.
Private prisons were a $3.3 billion industry in 2015, according to The Washington Post. More than half of the country’s immigration detainees were in private prisons that year, up from 25 percent in 2005. More than 130 private prisons incarcerated more than 130,000 people that year, according to the Post.
In her memo Thursday, Yates said a decline in prison population in the past three years contributed to her decision not to renew private prison contracts.
Human rights lawyers who have fought private prisons for decades questioned that.
Prison reform has become, surprisingly, a bipartisan effort in Congress during this bitterly contested election year. Members on both sides of the aisle have said that our prison system isn’t working: that early intervention and education would be money better spent.
But human rights attorneys told Courthouse News that the United States’ enormous, and growing, system of private prisons skews justice, toward incarceration. And that private prison companies, in effect, have bought off members of Congress to keep it going.
The GEO Group and CCA have contributed $10 million to political campaigns and spent more than $25 million on lobbying Congress since 1989, according to The Washington Post’s April 28, 2015 story.
Human rights attorneys, and the Post, cited the Corrections Corporation of America’s annual report for 2014: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. … Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior.”
Attorney Patrick Hughes moved to Laredo in 1985 to represent mothers and children in the INS/CCA immigration prison there. Hughes, who charged his clients nothing unless they could afford it, and relied on donations from the Catholic Church, told Courthouse News today: “CCA, a Tennessee company that owned the prison complex, decided that anyone, child or adult, would be stripped and cavity-searched as a condition of my visit. The strip searches happened both before and after the visits with me, an attorney who was experienced in asylum law.
“The private prison company invented a rationale that I might be providing subversive literature or contraband weapons to the immigration detainees, and argued that to merely visit with me was to label oneself as a communist supporter — an enemy of the USA, and thus not eligible for asylum. CCA hired a defrocked priest from Australia to hear confessions and counsel the detainees that I was a communist sympathizer and to avoid me.”
Paul Wright, founder and editor of Prison Legal News, told Courthouse News in an email: “This is a long overdue step by the federal government. But for the federal government’s bailout of the private prison industry in 2000 they would have long ago collapsed under the weight of their own mismanagement ineptitude and corruption. We can now expect a flurry of lobbying, as the industry cannot survive without its federal handouts.”
Prison-watchers told Courthouse News today that they expect pushback lawsuits from states that profit from private prisons, such as Texas and Louisiana.
Several states canceled their contracts with CCA after its abuses were revealed in civil lawsuits.
Deputy Attorney General Yates said in her Thursday memo that the goal of the Department of Justice is to “substantially reduce” private prison contracts when they expire, with the goal of “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.”
“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,” Yates said.