DOJ Private Prisons Memo is a Good Start

By Serena Rabie
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Executive Editor, Vol. 22

On August 18, the Justice Department (DOJ) made waves when it issued a memorandum announcing the end of its use of private prisons. The memorandum instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or substantially reduce the scope of such contracts. The Justice Department’s stated goal is “reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.”

The DOJ argued that private prisons do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs nor are they substantially cheaper to operate than their government counterparts. Additionally, the DOJ found that private prisons also do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” Civil rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are considering the move a tremendous victory which will “measurably improve the lives of tens of thousands of people who would have otherwise remain locked in these abusive, unaccountable, profit-driven institutions.” Additionally, the ACLU called on the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit with respect to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention system. Though the Justice Department’s actions are both symbolically and practically significant, the impact is limited because the vast majority of American inmates are housed in state prisons as opposed to federal prisons, and state prisons remain unaffected by the DOJ’s instructions. The Justice Department estimates that there are approximately 195,000 individuals in federal prison in the United States, but only about 30,000 of those individuals are housed in private prisons. By the DOJ’s estimates, 165,000 individuals remain unaffected by the memorandum.

A study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley by doctoral candidate Christopher Petrella examined the composition and operation of private prisons in nine states. Its main finding was that private prisons were packed with young people of color. Though it is well known that people of color are substantially more likely to spend time behind bars, the study found that they are “further overrepresented in private prisons contracted by the departments of correction in Arizona, California and Texas.” The bottom-line, according to the results of the study, is simply a matter of dollars and cents. Petrella concluded that private prisons deliberately exclude individuals with high medical care costs from their contracts in order to defray costs, and that the inmates with health problems tended to skew older and more white. Instead, private prisons became packed with individuals who were incarcerated as a result of the “war on drugs” and those individuals tend to be younger minorities.

As the public prisons tend to house aging populations, they provide age-specific resources to their inmates, while private prisons are under no obligation to do so. Younger prisoners are likely to be released, and therefore are in great need of education, drug counseling, anger management, and other social services, yet are unlikely to receive such counseling in a private prison. As such, the study found that private prisons had “worse or similar recidivism rates.” That information, coupled with the DOJ’s finding that private prisons are generally less safe than public prisons, forms the basis for substantial criticism of private prisons by civil rights activists.  In fact, in their official platform, Black Lives Matter calls for “[a]n immediate end to the privatization of police, prisons, jails, probation, parole, food, phone and all other criminal justice related services.” Though the DOJ’s instruction doesn’t completely satisfy Black Lives Matter’s demands with respect to prisons, it is the first step in the right direction.