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Between 1999 and 2014, the population of private prisoners ballooned from 69,000 to 131,300. The private prison population reached its high point in 2012, with 137,200 inmates, then just shy of 10% of the total United States prison population. The private prison industry has always raised a myriad of legal, ethical, and moral problems. As Pennsylvania’s own Kids for Cash scandal demonstrated, the private prison system can cause real, lasting damage to individuals.
Thus, Department of Justice’s recent decision to phase out its use of private prisons is largely hailed as an important, progressive victory. But in many ways it is actually a mixed bag.
First, the upside. Unlike government-run prisons, many private prisons are dangerously understaffed. One private corrections company, Corrections Company of America (CCA) was alleged to use gang members incarcerated in one of its facilities to maintain “order” and control over other inmates.
When we refer to “private prisons,” the word private is of course synonymous with for-profit. Private prisons are businesses, like Exxon, Apple, and 3M, and as such are in the business of making money. Staffing is not the only shortcoming in private prisons, because the for-profit model creates financial incentives for private prison facilities to cut corners, often leading to unsanitary or degrading conditions.
Another private corrections company, the Geo Group, employs lobbyists in 17 states, and has donated to over 400 candidates, to ensure a steady stream of people to put in its cells. CCA, which is larger than the Geo Group, gets paid on a per inmate per day basis, and can rake in over a billion dollars a year.
Private prisons, then, were a perfect solution to mass incarceration. And that segues this discussion into the not-so-upside of the DOJ’s announcement. As Reason argues, private prisons didn’t cause mass incarceration, mass incarceration created private prisons.
Another aspect of the DOJ’s decision that is largely missed by those focusing on the upside is that by phasing out its use of private prisons, not that many prisoners will actually benefit. The decision affects about 13 facilities holding about 12 percent of federal inmates. As of 2013 there were 215,000 people in federal prisons, but only 31,900 of those were held in private facilities. Meanwhile, the 1,270,800 people – as of 2013 – who are state prisoners will not benefit from the DOJ’s private prison phase-out at all, unless and until their state follows suit.
On the other hand, the DOJ’s private prison phase out is not so “limited” from the perspective of federal inmates held in private facilities. And, limited or not, this does signal progress. To the extent that private prisons are a by-product of mass incarceration, it is also clear that at least the federal prison population has decreased by about 25,000 over the last three years, due to (according to the DOJ) “significant efforts to recalibrate federal sentencing policy, including the retroactive application of revised drug sentencing guidelines, new charging policies for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, and the Administration’s ongoing clemency initiative.”
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