The Stark Data That Led The Justice Department To Abandon Private Prisons


Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced in a memo on Thursday that the United States Justice Department will either not renew its contracts with private prison companies or “substantially reduce” the scope of those contracts — with the goal of “ultimately ending” DOJ’s use of private prisons.

The Justice Department currently contracts with 13 such facilities.

Yates told the Washington Post that DOJ and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) have discussed ending their relationship with private prison companies for months. As her memo notes, these facilities “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 of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

Indeed, it’s worth noting just how fast the Justice Department appears to have acted in the wake of that Inspector General report, which was released just last week. The report documents a number of high-profile failures by private prisons where disturbances “resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury, and the death of a Correctional Officer.” In one incident, about 250 inmates — who complained of poor food and medical care — rioted, killing an officer and injuring 20 people. In another incident, “inmates set fires and caused extensive damage to the prison,” causing federal officials to terminate their contract with this prison because “the contractor could no longer perform the required services.”


For the most part, however, the report lays out a much more mundane case against private prisons. The private facilities failed, in large part, not because of high profile incidents — but because, compared to their government-run counterparts, they simply weren’t good at running a correctional facility. In this battle between socialism and the free market, socialism clearly won.

After the Inspector General’s office evaluated prisons along eight different categories, it found that private facilities underperformed government-run prisons in six of them. “Contract prisons,” the report explains, “had more frequent incidents per capita of contraband finds, assaults, uses of force, lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, and selected categories of grievances.”

  • Contraband: The private prisons “confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones annually on average as the BOP institutions,” and they “had nearly twice as many weapons confiscated as BOP institutions (3.2 compared to 1.8) monthly.”
  • Inmate-on-Inmate Assaults: Private prisons are simply much more dangerous and violent places than government-run facilities:
  • Inmate-on-Staff Assaults: Similarly, private prisons were more dangerous places to work. “With regard to inmate-on-staff assaults,” the report explains, “we found that the contract prisons reported well more than twice as many such incidents each month on average as compared to the BOP institutions: 4.2 assaults monthly, on average, in the contract prisons versus 1.6 in the BOP institutions.”
  • Lockdowns: Private prisons reported “30 partial lockdowns and 71 full lockdowns, while the BOP institutions reported no partial lockdowns and 11 full lockdowns, meaning that these security measures occurred more than 9 times as often at contract prisons.”
  • Serious Disciplinary Violations: The report also examined inmate discipline data on serious charges “such as murder, assault, sexual assault, possession of weapons or drugs, setting fires, fighting, and participating in riots or demonstrations.” It determined that “the contract prisons had a higher number of guilty findings on these types of serious offense charges. The contract prisons had 77.9 guilty findings monthly on average (10,089 over 4 years), compared to 64.7 in the BOP institutions (7,439 over 4 years).”

And on top of all of this, the report found that at least two private facilities subjected new inmates to fairly severe punishment, despite the fact that those inmates had not done anything to warrant such treatment.

“At two of the three contract prisons we visited, we learned that all newly received inmates were housed in the [Special Housing Units] due to lack of available bed space in general population housing units, which is contrary to both ACA standards and BOP policies,” the report reads. Once these inmates were placed in segregated housing, “these new inmates became subject to the same security measures as inmates placed in administrative segregation for specific security related reasons. These measures included restricted and controlled movements; limited access to programs such as educational or vocational programs, as well as work details; and limited telephone calls.”

On average, inmates in these prisons were housed in special housing for about 20 days before.