Utilization of for-profit federal prisons came in response to increasing inmate populations, which grew at a faster rate than the US Department of Justice could keep up. Now, the DOJ wants to phase out the use of these corporations entirely.
Private prisons have come under scrutiny in recent years because of accusations about lack safety and ineffectiveness, as well as concerns that they create perverse incentives to unncesarrily extend imprisonment.
“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” said a memo from the DOJ.
The DOJ’s move won’t impact a large portion of the prison population because most of the nation’s inmates are in state prisons, not federal. And since the directive doesn’t apply to state prisons, or immigration detention facilities (operated by the Department of Homeland Security), only 13 privately run federal facilities housing less than 25,000 inmates will be effected.
That’s not to say that the federal directive won’t initiate changes on the state level as well. Groups are already calling on DHS and states to follow the DOJ’s lead.
The shift from private prisons is significant, but it doesn’t address the problem of imprisoning offenders, especially for extended periods of time, for undeserving reasons. Whether they’re private or government-run prisons, issues like overcrowding, effectiveness, and safety concerns will persist if we continue to over-criminalize and over-incarcerate low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Also, phasing out these companies presents questions that have yet to be fully answered. As these contracts with prison corporations begin to expire over the next five years, where will these prisoners go? Will federal prison spending increase to accommodate them, or will they be packed into already crowded facilities?
Moving away from private prisons is a good measure but we must also address reoccurring problems that spurred the push for the private prisons in the first place. Otherwise, we may soon see ourselves back in the same situation.