The Justice Department plans to phase out its use of private prisons, after a report concluded that they are significantly inferior to government-run prisons. That’s a significant step forward, but America has much further to go if we hope to fix our deeply flawed criminal justice system.
In a memo released Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote that private 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.” For these reasons, Yates’ goal is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.”
Unquestionably, that’s a noble and important goal. Private prisons are one of the most egregious examples of crony capitalism in America. The Federal Bureau of Prisons spent $639 million on private prisons in 2014. Aiming for as much profit as possible, private prisons cut corners that government-run prisons don’t.
These corporations exploit, and sometimes encourage, mass incarceration and overcriminalization in order to boost their profits.
In many situations, it’s a good thing that profit motive makes companies more productive and effective; mass incarceration is not one of those situations. No one should profit from the imprisonment of human beings. As Matt Zwolinski, a libertarian and philosophy professor at the University of San Diego, has written, “If the government is violating people’s rights, do we really want to help them be more efficient about it?”
With that said, the fight against private prisons — and especially mass incarceration — is far from over.
For one, Yates told The Washington Post that it’s “hard to know precisely” when private prisons will no longer have federal inmates, but she hopes that, by May 1, there will be fewer than 14,200 inmates in such facilities. That’s less than half of the nearly 30,000 federal inmates that were held in private prisons at the peak in 2013. The federal prison population surged almost 800 percent from 1980 to 2013.
Furthermore, this announcement only affects the Federal Bureau of Prisons system. It has 13 private prisons, five of which are in Texas. But there are around 130 private prisons across the country in total.
Nor does the change affect one of the private prisons’ best clients: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Center for American Progress, for-profit prisons operated 62 percent of all immigration detention beds in 2015; in comparison, in 2014, for-profit prisons only held 8.4 percent of federal and state prisoners.
Again, the Justice Department’s announcement is a step in the right direction. But the department is only trying to phase out — not immediately end — its use of private prisons, which held almost 23,000 federal inmates as of December 2015.
In total, though, over 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. That makes America home to almost a quarter of the world’s prison population, despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population. According to the BBC, more than 90 percent of U.S. prisoners are held in state and local prisons — not federal prisons, let alone private prisons funded by the federal government.
Private prisons are a serious problem that need to be addressed, and I hope more government agencies follow the lead of the Justice Department. But mass incarceration and overcriminalization are much bigger problems.
In addition to working against locking people up in for-profit prisons, we must work against locking up so many people altogether.