DOJ not doing enough to end for-profit prison system
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva and Donald Cohen9:33 p.m. EDT October 27, 2016
Contracts with Marshals Service — along with Homeland Security and ICE — perpetuate dangerous, costly system.
In August, the Department of Justice directed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of privately operated, for-profit prisons. The decision followed an agency internal review, which found that private prisons are more costly, less effective and more dangerous than those run by the government.
The Justice Department’s five-year phaseout should be a significant step toward ending for-profit incarceration, which has for decades acted as an enabling force for both mass incarceration and the increased criminalization of immigrants.
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The two largest private prison companies in the U.S., which together made an estimated $45 million in profits from Bureau of Prisons contracts last year, have already felt the hit. GEO Group had lost nearly a billion dollars in value on the stock market less than two weeks after the announcement. Curbing the unconscionable practice of investing in incarceration is a good start, but to end private prisons for good, we must go further.
First, the Justice Department should finish what it started by ending all of its private prison contracts. The recent announcement only applies to the Bureau of Prisons, which holds 12% of its prison population in private facilities. The U.S. Marshals Service by comparison holds 31% of its prisoners in private facilities. The urgent reasons for the DOJ to end Bureau of Prisons contracts clearly apply to the Marshals Service as well.
Second, the Department of Homeland Security should follow the Justice Department’s lead. Homeland Security is reviewing its contracts with private prison companies that operate its immigration detention facilities, and they’re sure to find the same wasteful and alarming circumstances that the Justice Department did. The agency’s private facilities, operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have been criticized for similar reasons as private prisons, mostly for inadequate medical care. Correction Corporation of America (CCA) runs the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona — which has been deemed the deadliest immigration detention center in America — and the facility reported 14 deaths since 2003.
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Yet instead of shutting the appalling enterprise down, ICE just entered into a new contract with CCA involving Eloy and another facility in Dilley, Texas, this month. As ICE’s capacity for detaining immigrants continues to expand, its share of beds operated for profit is increasing as well, up to 73% this year.
Finally, state, county and city governments must phase out their contracts with private prison companies as well. Companies such as GEO Group and CCA apply the same business model they use for federal facilities to state prisons, municipal jails and halfway houses: Cut costs wherever possible to maximize profits. Some jurisdictions have recently woken up to this harsh reality. In September, Mississippi closed its privately operated Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, which had been under federal court oversight since 2012 due to its severe and systemic violence, including the sexual abuse of prisoners by staff. Washington, D.C., recently announced that the city would allow its contract with CCA to expire early next year and then resume full operation of its jail.
The impact of ending private prison contracts at every level of government will be twofold. In addition to removing the profit motive from incarceration, taxpayer money that goes to private prison company profits will become available to be spent in more humane and productive ways.
Each year, the private prison industry collects thousands of taxpayer dollars in profit for every incarcerated person in their facilities. As private involvement in the criminal justice system is phased out, this money going to corporate executives, shareholders and Wall Street could be spent on programs providing education, mental health services, community-based re-entry and substance abuse treatment for inmates, which in turn will reduce recidivism. As contracts end, public money will be freed up to invest in curbing mass incarceration instead of feeding it. GEO Group and CCA made an estimated $79 million in profits from ICE contracts last year, money that could’ve been spent on more humane treatment of immigrant detainees, such as community-based alternatives to detention.
Given the harm to privately held prisoners and detainees, the Justice Department’s recent decision and the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money that would become available, officials at every level of American government should move to end their contracts with private prison companies. The Justice Department started the job, now let’s finish it.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat representing Tucson since 2003, is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Donald Cohen is the founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, a national research and policy non-profit advocating for shared prosperity in the provision of public goods and services.