Highly profitable private prisons, which aided in the increased incarceration of Blacks and Latinos due to racial disparities in sentencing, have been deemed highly unsafe.
By Sheryl Estrada
The Department of Justice announced Thursday it will phase out its contracts with private prisons to “ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement.
The decision comes after an audit this month found that private facilities have more security and safety problems than government-run prisons. The Bureau of Prisons has already reduced a reliance on private prisons. Three weeks ago, it decided to end a private prison contract for approximately 1,200 beds.
Yates sent a memo Thursday to the acting director of the bureau directing that, “as each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population.”
“This is the first step in the process of reducing and ultimately ending our use of privately operated prisons,” she stated. “While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.”
Following the DOJ’s announcement, shares of the largest publicly traded prison providers, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, plunged more than 40 percent in midday trading.
According to CNBC, “Trading in both stocks was intermittently halted amid their decline Thursday. The stocks ended the day down more than 35 percent and 39 percent, respectively.”
There are 13 private prisons run by companies like CCA and GEO that were contracted by the federal government.
The majority of inmates in the U.S. are kept in state prisons. However,Yates’ memo to the bureau does not apply to any of those,even the onesthat are privately owned.
Background on the Current Federal Use of Private Prisons
Yates explained the federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, and the Bureau of Prisons could not accommodate the population in their own facilities alone. Tenyears ago, the bureau started contracting privately operated correctional institutions.
“By 2013, as both the federal prison population and the proportion of federal prisoners in private facilities reached their peak, the bureau was housing approximately 15 percent of its population, or nearly 30,000 inmates, in privately operated prisons,” Yates said.
She attributes the declining prison population to the Department of Justice’s “Smart on Crime Initiative,” launched in 2013, and reforms that created proportional sentences. The population is currently at 195,000, down from 220,000 in 2013.
“This decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services services that increase their chances of becoming contributing members of their communities when they return from prison,” Yates said.
Private prisons, which currently houseabout 12 percent of the total federal prison population, have become a highly profitable business.
According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, “Gaming the System: How Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies,” GEO and CCA earned a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue while private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
The facilities also became increasingly unsafe. Over the years, there have been numerous cases where private prisons have been cited, fined or shut down for stinting on food, clothing, education and medical treatment for inmates, including juveniles in detention.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s justice reform platform includes ending federal use of private prisons.
Increase in Prison Population Mainly Blacks, Latinos
The increase in the overall prison population between 1980 and 2013, which Yates spoke of, can be attributed in part to the war on drugs of the 1980s and mandatory minimum sentences. Both have contributed to the U.S. comprising approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite representing about 5 percent of the world’s total population.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill, created mandatory crack violations that were much harsher than those for powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are molecularly similar. The possession of more than five grams of crack is a felony punishable by at least five years in prison the same as the conviction of a drug offense involving 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Most offenders sentenced under the crack provisions are Black, whereas white offenders make up a much higher portion of those convicted for powder cocaine offenses.
In November, USA TODAY published an analysis of FBI arrest records, which highlights racial disparity in arrest rates. It found Blacks are more likely to be arrested than people of other races.
According to the Center for American Progress:
– People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are Black.
– Latinos represent 16 percent of the overall population but 19 percent of those who are incarcerated.
– Whites make up 64 percent of the overall population but account for only 39 percent of those who are incarcerated.
Criminal Justice Reform
In July 2015,President Barack Obama visited a federal prison inEl Reno, Oklahoma, to talkabout criminal justice reform, which he has made an important cause during his presidency. He is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
In May, Obama commuted, or shortened, the prison terms of 58 non-violent drug offenders, nearly a third of whom were serving life sentences. Many had been serving time for crack.
Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan effort to cut the U.S. prison population in half, issued a response to the DOJ announcement on Thursday, which said in part:
“Today, President Obama took a stand for human rights, transparency, and accountability. We applaud his administration’s actions. But there is still a long way to go before we restore fairness, balance, and human dignity to a criminal justice system that has grown too big, too unfair and too brutal. There is still an entire ‘incarceration industry’ that profits from the destruction of lives and separation of families.”
Van Jones is a CNN contributor, co-founder of #cut50 and president of The Dream Corps. Coinciding with the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, he moderated a panel to answer the question: Will criminal justice reform ever happen
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and part of the drafting committee of this year’s Democratic Party platform. Lee said it’s the first time in history that a specific call to end mass incarceration has been included in a major political party’s platform.