Activists to Feds: Closing Private Prisons Won’t Help Most Inmates

Inmates in some privately owned penitentiaries could see their facilities shut down by May 1, 2017.
(Photo: Luis Sinco/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)
Aug 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The United States is known for having the largest prison population in the world—a dubious distinction that’s the result of decades of “get tough” policies, including mandatory drug sentences and three-strikes laws. Now thanks to an announcement Thursday by the United States Department of Justice, fewer federal inmates will be locked up in privately owned penitentiaries.

The Department of Justice announced in a memo that it will close three of the nation’s 13 private prisons by May 1, 2017, and the rest in the following five years. In the memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to either decline to renew contracts with private prison operators or “substantially reduce” the number of beds inmates inhabit in private prisons. The closure affects about 22,000 federal prisoners in the private prison system, 1 percent of the nation’s total incarcerated population.

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“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” Yates wrote in the memo. “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 or security.”

A report Yates cited in the memo found that the contracted prisons studied had more problems with assault and inmate discipline than federally owned facilities did. In one example, a correctional officer was killed and more than 20 people were injured following a riot in a correctional facility where inmates reported receiving low-quality food and medical care.

Given the human rights violations that the Department of Justice has found in private prisons, the announcement seems like a win for activists who have spoken out against mass incarceration. But for Blake Simons, the communications director of the California-based black empowerment collective Afrikan Black Coalition, because most inmates are not locked up in federal private prisons, the closures are only a “symbolic victory.”

“According to Prison Policy Initiative, there are around 6,125 prisons and jails in America. By only closing 13 private prisons, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on the gaping wound of mass incarceration,” Simons wrote in an email to TakePart.

The coalition successfully pushed the University of California system to divest $25 million from the private prison industry in 2015 and has worked with Californian cities to reallocate prison funding to community services.

“Instead of prisons, we need an investment in public schools, health care, social work, and an overall end to poverty in America,” Simons wrote. “By taking a restorative justice approach, we can begin by eliminating contracts with private and public prisons at the state level, ultimately abolishing them completely.”

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Not all private justice facilities in the U.S. will close or lose their contracts. Private care facilities that provide transitional support and operate halfway houses will not be affected, and the Department of Homeland Security continues to operate privately owned detention centers.

Jamie Trinkle, the campaign coordinator for anti­–mass incarceration collective Enlace, pinpointed the Department of Homeland Security’s privatized detention centers as the next step the federal government should take in reforming the justice system.

“The Department of Homeland Security should immediately follow suit and end all Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with private prisons, including for ankle bracelet monitoring, privatized transportation, and other practices that expand the ways people are controlled by the state and the ways corporations profit from that increased state control,” Trinkle wrote in an email to TakePart. “States and counties should terminate and ban contracting with private prisons for prison facilities as well as re-entry services, addiction treatment, rehabilitation services, and electronic monitoring.”