The Problem With The DOJ’s Decision To Stop Using Private Prisons

The private prison industry will still have access to its biggest cash cow: immigrants.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mel Evans
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mel Evans

The Department of Justice announced Thursday that it will stop outsourcing federal prisons to private prison companies after their current contracts expire. But that doesn’t mean the federal government is actually ending private prisons.

The DOJ has internally instructed officials to decline to renew contracts or “substantially reduce” their scope with the ultimate goal of ending the department’s use of privately-operated, for-profit prisons.

While the decision will affect 13 federal prisons currently operated by private companies, the bulk of federal private prisons aren’t run by DOJ. In fact, the industry’s biggest client is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — a separate agency that relies on private prisons to hold immigrants, often in appalling and unconstitutional conditions.

ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez confirmed the agency’s detention operations had not changed despite the DOJ’s decision.


As Sharita Gruberg detailed in a Center for American Progress report, DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only operates 11 percent of the beds in 250 immigration detention centers. As of last year, 62 percent of immigration detention beds were operated by corporations. Some are housed in for-profit facilities contracted with ICE, and many more are in state and local prisons that sub-contract with prison companies.

That’s far more than the share of state and federal prisoners held in private prisons. It’s clear that the rise of privatized immigration facilities has been a huge boon to the industry:

Draconian immigration policies passed in the 1990s drove the need for more detention beds, which in turn created a vital opportunity for the prison industry. A turning point came in 2000, when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was granted a contract to run an immigration detention center in San Diego, CA, which helped bring the company back from the brink of bankruptcy. It’s now the largest private prison company in the world.

CCA and GEO Group took a dip in the stock market in response to the DOJ news, but the blow is far from fatal.

Private prison companies have projected robust growth over the years thanks to the expansion of deportations under President Obama.


In recent years, the influx of refugees and migrant children fleeing violence in Central American countries has bolstered private prison companies’ projections. CCA explicitly credited a boost in revenue this year to the increased imprisonment of these Central American mothers and children.

Abuse and inhumanity are standard throughout the U.S. prison system, but privately run facilities have a particularly bad reputation. Private prison companies are driven by the need to maximize their bottom line, which creates incentive to cut corners.

Unlike federal and state prisons, which have strong corrections officers unions that require some modicum of safety and labor standards, private prisons are often understaffed to a dangerous degree. CCA was caught partnering with gangs to save money and keep prisons in order. Other private prisons have frequently been overtaken by riots and protests over the disgusting conditions.

Men, women and children packed into private immigration detention centers are often forced to sleep on cold floors or in bug-infested tents, sexually assaulted by guards, and go without edible food or other basic services. Many have even died because their medical needs went ignored, or because the conditions have re-traumatized them, driving them to suicide.

Despite the many reports of human rights violations, ICE has failed to investigate these prisons and continues to renew contracts — even as the DOJ admits that egregious abuses in private prisons have prompted their decision to stop using them.

In fact, the ink is still drying on ICE’s new contract to pay CCA $1 billion to jail women and children seeking asylum in the U.S. for at least four more years.