The U.S. Justice Department announced last week it will be phasing out the use of private prisons, with the eventual goal of ending the Federal Bureau of Prison’s use of privately operated facilities.
The number of people incarcerated in the federal system has skyrocketed over the last three decades, growing by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013. To accommodate this increase, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private, for-profit facilities to house prisoners. In 2013, private correctional facilities housed 15 percent of the federal prison population — approximately 30,000 prisoners.
The use of private prisons has long been controversial. Advocacy organizations, such as the Brennan Center, have raised concern over the perverse financial incentives created by contracts with privately operated prisons that may fuel rising incarceration rates. Labor groups have also cited issues with working conditions and pay in private facilities.
In a memorandum to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote:
Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They 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. The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource-and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.
Even before last week’s announcement, the Bureau of Prisons had already begun dramatically reducing the number of prisoners in private facilities: three weeks ago, it declined to renew a contract for housing 1,200 prisoners, and now it will cut an existing contract from 10,800 beds to 3,600 beds. By May of next year there will be less than 14,200 prisoners housed in private facilities — a 50 percent decrease from 2013. (Significantly, Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE[ and the U.S. Marshalls will continue to utilize private prisons. This will also not impact state contracts with private prisons)
This is a huge step forward — both for prisoners affected by it and for the criminal justice system as a whole — and it represents another example of the executive branch’s ability to advance real reform.
The Brennan Center has long called for stronger presidential leadership to reform our justice system. In an April 2014 report, 15 Executive Actions, we laid out four concrete steps the president and his administration could take to strengthen our system of justice and move the ball forward on reform. And while President Obama has taken many positive steps such as this one, he can and should go further, taking stronger action to help reform our justice system.