Will States Follow Feds’ Lead on Private Prisons?

Advocates are hopeful that the Justice Department’s move will offer a road map for states.
Deputies check on inmates. (Photo: Luis Sinco/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)
Aug 24, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

With the Justice Department’s announcement last week that it will phase out its reliance on controversial private prisons to house roughly 22,000 inmates, advocates are hoping states and other federal agencies will follow suit. The Department of Homeland Security is the biggest federal customer of for-profit prison companies The GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, and the majority of prisoners confined in private facilities are at the state level. But neither DHS nor state governments are bound by the announcement.

So is there reason to believe the states might follow suit? For the more than 91,000 inmates housed in private state prisons, advocates say a change could be on the way.

“At the very least, [the DOJ’s announcement] creates a political space for state officials who are looking to downsize their prison population,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director of criminal justice reform organization The Sentencing Project. “The DOJ has shown a road map for states.”

Some states have begun shifting in this direction. On Friday, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation representative told The Sacramento Bee that the department’s “strong preference” is to end its private prison contracts. To ease overcrowding, the state houses nearly 5,000 inmates in privately run, out-of-state prisons.

For California, which is under a 2009 federal court order to dramatically reduce its prison population, ending private contracts may be another practical step toward that goal and also a cost-saving measure.

In her memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates counted a lack of security and of cost savings among the reasons for the government’s decision to end its contracts—an observation that could hit home for the many states struggling with budget cuts.

“Private prisons are where to start for state officials who are in a position to downsize,” said Porter, who noted that ceasing to renew such contracts must be coupled with policy reforms that reduce the number of people entering jails and prisons.

Efforts to end contracts have also been under way in Colorado, where since 2009, the state has shut down four of seven private prisons. In June, the Mississippi Department of Corrections announced it would shutter its privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, citing budget shortfalls. Walnut Grove, which houses 900 prisoners, was the subject of years of litigation alleging abusive and dangerous conditions. A coalition of clergy members, along with other activists in the state, continues to push for more private prison closures.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of inmates are not held in these facilities: Just 8 percent of the 2.4 million U.S. prisoners are confined in private prisons. Furthermore, Porter pointed out, problems noted by the DOJ—such as sexual abuse, overcrowding, and violence—are also rampant in public prisons.

Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, agreed.

“Ending private prisons is not going to end mass incarceration, but the push to end prison privatization goes hand in hand with that struggle,” Takei told TakePart. “I think it’s going to be very hard for officials in state corrections agencies to defend relying on these companies after the Justice Department has stated so clearly that their experiment with private prisons was a failure.”