Foon Rhee

Breaking up with private prisons can be hard to do

Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., in May 2012 during an inmate disturbance that killed a guard. It was one of the private prisons cited in an inspector general report that helped lead to the Department of Justice announcing it plans to end private contracts.
Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., in May 2012 during an inmate disturbance that killed a guard. It was one of the private prisons cited in an inspector general report that helped lead to the Department of Justice announcing it plans to end private contracts. The Natchez (Miss.) Democrat

In a major reversal, the feds announced Thursday they plan to phase out the use of private prisons. Good thing, too, after reports of abuses and safety problems.

California is also pulling back and hopes to eventually end contracts with private prisons outside the state once overcrowding eases enough.

“Our strong preference is to end the use of out-of-state prisons,” Jeffrey Callison, assistant secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told me Friday.

The department is contracting for 4,835 private beds out of state, plus 1,978 private beds in California as of last week, according to the department. That’s about 5 percent of all inmates in its custody.

The in-state beds are in small, minimum-security facilities that have been used for decades. The state didn’t resort to out-of-state private prisons until the overcrowding crisis peaked in 2007. Under an October 2006 emergency proclamation, the number of inmates sent elsewhere rose dramatically from 600 in August 2007 to nearly 9,600 in August 2011.

That emergency order was supposed to end in June, but that wasn’t possible, Callison says. The state is still under a 2009 federal court order to reduce overcrowding, which amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

After realignment and other changes reduced the prison population, the state was able to slash about 4,000 out-of-state beds by June, saving $73 million in the 2015-16 budget. The corrections department made that cut by no longer using a private prison in Oklahoma, only ones in Arizona and Mississippi.

Advocacy groups say out-of-state prisons are not only expensive for taxpayers, but bad for inmates and their families, since it makes it much more difficult to visit. Callison says the department is aware of hardships on families and of other concerns raised about private prisons.

In announcing their decision, Justice Department officials said that compared to government prisons, private facilities do not provide the same level of services and do not reduce costs substantially – two strikes against them.

The third strike: They “do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in a memo. She cited a report released last week by the department’s inspector general that found higher rates of assault on inmates and staff at private facilities.

There have also been critical media reports about the for-profit prison industry, including a harrowing account by a Mother Jones magazine reporter who spent four months working undercover at a private prison in Louisiana.

Within five years, the Justice Department plans to end or substantially reduce contracts for 13 private prisons that now house about 22,000 inmates, or 12 percent of the total federal prison population. They include Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County, home to nearly 2,200 minimum-security inmates and run by Management & Training Corp., one of the big players in the industry along with Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.

The decision does not cover lucrative contracts for detention centers housing illegal immigrants, but the private companies are not happy, especially when their stocks prices crashed after the announcement.

The federal Bureau of Prisons began signing the contracts a decade ago, also to keep up with an exploding inmate population, largely fueled by the war on drugs. Federal sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have been shortened, and the Obama administration is wisely pushing further reductions.

As California’s prison population declines with similar changes, the state can also end these private contracts. It’s part of criminal justice reform, too.

By the numbers

The number of in-state private prison beds under contract by the state of California, the number of out-of-state private prison beds and the percentage of total inmate population:

  • August 2016: 1,978 in-state, 4,835 out-of-state, 5.3%
  • August 2015: 1,897, 6,961, 6.9%
  • August 2014: 2,062, 8,803, 8.0%
  • August 2013: 609, 8,843, 7.1%
  • August 2012: 603, 9,045, 7.2%
  • August 2011: 1,558, 9,596, 6.9%

Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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