DOJ to Phase Out Private Prisons: Here’s What That Means

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The Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons for federal prisoners, according to a memo from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released on Thursday. According to Yates, the Department of Justice plans to either not renew existing private prison contracts or significantly reduce the scope of the agreements in the coming years. Over time, this will end the use of private prisons at the federal level, but that’s only part of the picture. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.

Why Now?

The decision comes less than a week after the Office of the Inspector General released a harsh report about the quality of these contract prisons. According to the report, “in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.” The announcement also comes on the heels of an investigation from Mother Jones, which involved a reporter going undercover for multiple months in a Louisiana private prison. That story highlighted many of the security concerns involved with private prisons as well as the way that the profit motive can negatively affect prison conditions.

In her memo, Yates also points out that this move is in part a response to recent progress shrinking the size of the federal prison population. The use of private prisons was largely a product of the massive increase in federal prisoners over the past several decades. But 2014 marked the first year in which the number of federal prisoners actually decreased. The chart below shows the massive growth in the number of federal prisoners since 1980.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, CSTAT

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, CSTAT

In 2013, the Department of Justice began its Smart on Crime Initiative, which sought to improve fairness and efficiency in the criminal justice system. An important part of the initiative was sentencing reform, which sought to ensure that sentence lengths were appropriate, particularly for nonviolent criminals. The new sentencing guidelines later became retroactive for drug offenders, which allowed inmates to challenge their sentence and get it reduced if approved by a judge. As a result, the DOJ hopes that the recent prison population decline will become a sustained trend, which in turn will reduce the need for private prisons.

How Many Prisoners Does This Affect?

While we know that the federal prison population has grown significantly over the past couple decades, how many of those prisoners are held in private prisons? Currently, private prisons account for about 11 percent of all federal prisoners, or about 22,100 prisoners. There are 13 private prisons used by the federal government, which will now be phased out over the next several years. But it’s important to note that most of the prisoners held in private prisons are at the state level. Here’s a look at the use of private prisons by states and the federal government since 1999:

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, CSTAT

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, CSTAT

What This Won’t Change

As you can see in the chart above, states use private prisons a lot more than the federal government and that won’t change with the DOJ’s recent decision. Another prominent use of private prisons is immigrant detention, which is overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshalls Service. Because immigration detention is not overseen by the DOJ, this decision will also not affect those facilities.

Simply put, this decision will not affect the majority of inmates in private prisons. But that doesn’t mean that the DOJ’s move will have no effect. In her memo, Assistant Attorney General Yates notes:

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 oflnspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.

While she compares private facilities to the ones operated by the Bureau of Prisons, her comments amount to a strong statement against these prisons. Having a clear federal policy to stop using these facilities on the grounds that they are inferior to publicly controlled prisons may send a message to states to reconsider their private contracts. And shortly after the decision was announced on Thursday, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group–the two largest private prison companies–saw their stock prices plummet.

Kevin Rizzo
Kevin Rizzo is the Crime in America Editor at Law Street Media. An Ohio Native, the George Washington University graduate is a founding member of the company. Contact Kevin at



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