WASHINGTON: The US Department of Justice on Thursday announced it was ending the use of private prisons to detain federal inmates, severing itself from a practice that had become increasingly controversial.
The decision will affect only a small share of the detainee population within the United States, which represents one in four prisoners held around the world.
In an internal memo released by the department, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said her agency would begin the gradual process of reversing the privatization of some US prisons, a practice which had proved more problematic but no less costly than the use of government-managed correctional facilities.
“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs,” Yates wrote.
Yates also cited a recent report by the department’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, which found that private prisons were more dangerous than those in public hands.
Rising scrutiny for private prisons
The decision will affect 13 privately run prisons housing just over 22,000 people, or about 11 percent of the federal prison population. Most are foreign nationals, mainly Mexicans incarcerated for immigration violations.
The prisons are run by three companies: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Goup and Management and Training Corporation.
Shares in CCA and GEO Group nosedived on the news, both down nearly 39 percent by midafternoon.
In the United States, the federal government detains a relatively small share of the overall prison population, currently about 1.6 million people, according to the Prison Population Initiative.
Since peaking in 2013 at nearly 220,000 inmates, the federal prison population has declined in recent years to fewer than 194,000.
The news was quickly hailed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a former presidential candidate in 2016.
“Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations,” Sanders said in a statement.
“We have got to end the private prison racket in America as quickly as possible.”
However, Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said private prisons received outsized attention for their relatively small share of the prison population.
“This is a small black eye to the private prison industry, which is a very small corner of the prison system in this country, which is overwhelmingly publicly run,” Wagner told AFP.
“The federal prison population is declining and they have concluded the obvious, which is that private prisons are not as good,” he added.
“They are going to have to close some prisons and they’re choosing to close the ones that are not performing.”
The changes will not be immediate.
According to Yates, the Bureau of Prisons will not renew existing contracts to the private operators as they expire, or reduce them in scope as allowed by law as the inmate population declines.
The total population of federal inmates housed at privately run facilities will drop to 14,200 by May of next year, Yates said.
Calls for criminal justice reform have gained favor in recent years among both Democrat and Republican lawmakers.
The Justice Department’s decision comes as the private prison industry has fallen under increasingly critical scrutiny.
The magazine Mother Jones in June published the results of an undercover investigation during which a reporter worked at a CCA-run prison in Louisiana. The report exposed widespread violence among inmates and poor medical and mental care, among other conditions.
In its most recent two seasons, the popular Netflix drama “Orange is the New Black,” which dramatizes the lives of female federal inmates, painted a harsh portrait of a fictional private company that seeks to maximize profits at the expense of prisoners’ human rights.