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The Department of Justice Will End the Use of Private Prisons in America

But it won’t solve our country’s incarceration problem.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

The United States government just sounded a death knell for the prison-industrial complex.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Thursday that it plans on ending the continued use of private prison facilities after officials “concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government,” the Washington Post reports.

The announcement comes one week after the DOJ’s inspector general published a scathing report on the status of the “contract prisons” the Bureau of Prisons began operating in 1997 to handle overcrowding in federal institutions (as of December 2015, contract prisons housed roughly 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons’ total inmate population). The inspector general concluded that private prisons “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [Bureau of Prisons] institutions,” ranging from “extensive property damage, bodily injury, and the death of a Correctional Officer.”

The inspector general’s report was something of a nail in the coffin for private facilities. “[Contract prisons] 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,” said the DOJ’s Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates in a statement.

Cutting off contract prisons won’t make much of a dent in the mass incarceration trend; it simply shifts the operational burden back to the government.

That the for-profit prison sector is fundamentally less safe for its 22,660 inmates than federally compliant institutions is no surprise. A 2015 study from the University of Wisconsin found that private prisons in Mississippi (which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state) handed down more violations and increased inmate sentences more frequently than their state counterparts, elongating the amount of time a citizen spends in a prison bed and, in turn, jacking up profits for the facility. Driven by profit, private prisons have blossomed into a $5 billion industry at the cost of state coffers—and the safety of their inhabitants.

“States may want to consider increased monitoring to prevent excessive violations to keep costs in line or having contracts that don’t just reward operators for filling beds but require them to produce outcomes such as reduced rates of recidivism,” observedAnita Mukherjee, the study’s author.

Instead of simply monitoring contract prison, the DOJ has decided that it’s simply more cost effective to starve the prison-industrial complex. And while the decision will banish the ugly specter of jailing Americans for profit, it’s not the salve on the country’s mass incarceration problem some may be hoping for. The nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980, despite the fact that violent crime in America has been on the decline for decades. But there are limits, of course. It’s worth noting that private prisons make up a tiny fraction of America’s vast incarcerated population: State prisons constitute 86 percent of the prison population, with federal prisons accounting for the other 14 percent. And of that 14 percent, just 12 percent are in contract institutions.

Private prisons are generally understood as the result of mass incarceration, not the explicit cause of it, according to an analysis from the Sentencing Project:

With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the ‘war on drugs’ and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons.

Cutting off contract prisons won’t make much of a dent in the mass incarceration trend; it simply shifts the operational burden back to the government.

Still, it’s a big deal for those outraged over the confluence of business interests and mass incarceration, a favorite boogeyman of liberal elites, according to Vox’s German Lopez. If anything, it’s a symbolic reminder that the logic of capitalism need not extend as far as how a society punishes its worst offenders — and that’s especially salient in the mass incarceration capital of the world.