Yesterday, in a development that garnered significant national attention, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would phase out the use of private, for-profit prisons. Although the move was described by the some advocates as "important and groundbreaking," and although it sent the stocks of some private prison companies plummeting, advocates fear that its actual impact on the lives of the millions of people locked up in America's jails, prisons, and detention center could be very limited.
"I am eager to enlist your help in beginning the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of private operated prisons," wrote DOJ Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a memorandum to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). "All of the Bureau's existing contracts with private prisons are term-limited and subject to renewal or termination. I am directing that, as each contract reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope."
The news comes on the heels of a recently released Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report, which offered a stinging criticism of the safety and security at privately-run institutions on the federal level. For example, at two of the three sites visited by OIG investigators, correctional officers were found to be housing inmates in Special Housing Units, or isolation cells, until beds in general population became available—even though those inmates hadn't committed any behavioral violations. In addition, private prisons were found to have higher rates of assault, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.
The directive will apply to the 13 facilities currently contracted out by the federal government, or about 22,000 prisoners. Privately run facilities at the state and county level will not be affected, nor will privately run immigration detention facilities, which fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. As MuckRock explored, the announcement also has no impact on the myriad prison-related services that are contracted out to private companies, like inmate transport or food production.
In short, the announcement means that the vast majority of people currently held in for-profit facilities will still contribute to a corporate bottom line. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has come under particular scrutiny for its significant reliance on for-profit contractors. According to a recent ThinkProgress piece, corporations currently operate nine of the ten largest detention centers in the US.
Standard correctional procedures do not take into account the violence, trauma, and mental illness the majority of incarcerated women have experienced outside of jail.
Conditions in these detention centers are bleak, especially for vulnerable populations like women, children, and LGBTQ people. Last year, women at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)-operated T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas went on hunger strike to protest the abusive conditions: poor or spoiled food, minimal medical and mental health care, and hostile or violent staff. Similar hunger strikes occurred at male facilities across the US.
When it comes to a range of issues that affect incarcerated women, including sexual abuse, access to reproductive health care, and the shackling of pregnant women, there is scant data on whether conditions are actually worse in privately run facilities. But reporters and researchers have documented just how bad things can be for women even when prisons and jails are publicly owned. In 2015 the Miami Herald investigated conditions at Florida's Lowell Correctional Institution, the largest women's prison in the United States. They found rampant levels of violence, corruption, and sexual abuse.
According to advocates and researchers, the simple fact of being locked up can be a traumatizing experience for many women, regardless of who is holding the key. A report released this week by the Vera Institute examines the exponential growth in the number of women held in local jails over the past few decades. "Standard correctional procedures, such as searches, restraints, and the use of solitary confinement, do not take into account the violence, trauma, and mental illness the majority of incarcerated women have experienced outside of jail and can reactive trauma in women who have suffered abuse," it states.
In recent years, activists and advocates have hotly debate the utility of campaigning to end private prisons. "The long-standing campaign against private prisons is based on the fictitious claim that revenues raked in from outsourced contracts explain the origin and growth of mass incarceration," wrote abolitionist scholar Ruthie Gilmore in a 2015 essay.
There are some concerns that the recent DOJ announcement, and similar reforms, could actually undermine efforts to fundamentally change the American prison system. Dan Berger is an assistant professor at the University of Washington–Bothell and the author of the groundbreaking book Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. "Obama's decision around juvenile solitary, around the hundreds of people who's sentenced he's commuted so far—all of those are responses to the kind of popular organizing that's been happening," he told Broadly. "And yet, they are drops in the bucket of what needs to happen."
In response to the DOJ announcement, some activists working on the frontline pushed back against the idea that ending private prisons is the answer. As Isa Noyola of the Transgender Law Center puts it: "We do not simply want the violence committed by a corporation to be inflicted on us by the state."