Earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the federal government will be halting its use of private prisons. Although very few federal prisoners are held in private prisons compared to at the state level, this is still an important symbolic decision in response to a recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report that found less safety and weaker security in privately run prisons than public ones.
Although the libertarian instinct might be to criticize this decision—why should the federal government have a prison monopoly?—it’s worth recognizing that private incarceration facilities have long been mismanaged and fraught with problems, with disastrous consequences for inmate quality of life. This is a step in the right direction: towards the proper and humane treatment of inmates, and away from punitive experiences and over-incarceration.
Private prisons began in the 1980s, largely as a response to the War on Drugs and subsequent overcrowding. Since private prisons are profit-motivated, their operators (in theory) have incentives to run them well while keeping costs as low as possible.
In reality, this meant only that they hired low numbers of workers and paid them wages below the industry standard, meaning their staffs were inexperienced and ill-equipped to handle instances of violence. Although proponents like to cite the cost-saving potential of private prisons, few studies have confirmed that they actually come cheaper. Instead, incentives for private prisons are dangerously skewed towards incarcerating more and more people, so profits and political influence can grow.
According to the OIG report, private prisons have disastrous results compared to their public counterparts. The report examined prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation, focusing on 14 low-security private prisons that were then compared with 14 federally run, low-security prisons.
The positives for private prisons include fewer incidents of sexual assault. That’s about it, though. Private prisons had more incidents of physical assault (both from staff and inmates), more unlawful solitary confinement due to capacity issues, and greater instances of inadequate medical care, including denying treatment for cancer and heart attacks.
This report was long overdue, and its findings were significant in the DOJ’s decision to cease contracts with private prisons and scale their usage out.
The glaring problem, again, is that only about 22,000 federal prisoners are held in private prisons, meaning the vast majority of prisoners won’t be affected by this change. The DOJ’s move shouldn’t trick anyone into thinking we’re making significant progress towards criminal justice reform. Make no mistake: our current practice of mass incarceration is absolutely heinous and will need substantial, revolutionary change in order to be ended. Reform advocates, don’t get distracted.