Libal, shown at a protest over conditions at a federal immigrant detainee center, say private prisons must go. Courtesy Bob Libal.

A scathing early-August report by the Office of the Inspector General on the quality-of-inmate-life in private prisons led to a very quick decision by the Department of Justice: Unless a new contract is “substantially reduce[d] in scope in a manner consistent with law,” the Bureau of Prisons must allow its current contracts with private prisons to expire.
The U.S. deputy attorney general said she believes this is just the beginning. In a memo to the acting director of the BOP, Sally Q. Yates wrote, “This is the first step in the process of reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.”
Less reliance on private prisons, Yates wrote in a DOJ press release, has led to the reduction in number of BOP inmates, to 195,000 today from 220,000 in 2013, when the DOJ implemented the Smart on Crime Initiative (keeping low-level, non-gang-related drug criminals from serving time in federal prison).
While Yates did not refer to the new report in her press release, she alluded to it when she noted, “The decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services.”
Among other things, the Inspector General’s report noted that violence was considerably more pervasive in private prisons than in BOP-run facilities, that prisoners in private facilities were routinely placed in solitary confinement without sufficient grounds, that medical care in private facilities was frequently deficient, and that the costs of housing prisoners in private facilities was equal to or higher than at BOP-run facilities.
As the owners and operators of a majority of U.S. private facilities, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group watched their stock tumble by nearly 40 percent within a day of the announcement.
The directive did not include the private prisons housing detainees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which are run under the Department of Homeland Security and therefore not the province of the DOJ.
But on Friday, Aug. 25, Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary, announced that he has ordered “a review of for-profit immigration detention contracts.”
The homeland security review comes as something of a surprise: In an e-mail to me later on that same Friday, ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok indicated that private prisons would continue to be utilized as part of ICE’s inventory of prisoner housing. It should be noted, he included in his message that “ICE detention is solely for the purpose of either awaiting the resolution of an individual’s immigration case or to carry out a removal order. ICE does not detain for punitive reasons.”
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit focused on ending the use of private prisons in the United States, scoffed at the notion that ICE prisons are not punitive.
“People stay in ICE facilities for weeks, months, sometimes years,” he told me in response to Rusnok’s comments. “Just because they put pictures on the walls doesn’t mean [the facilities] are not punitive. There are still locks on the doors and guards to keep you from leaving.”
The order for the BOP to stop using private prisons is a major blow to both the CCA and GEO, the largest private prison corporations not only in the United States but the world. Between them, they currently house roughly 22,000 prisoners or about 12 percent of the BOP’s entire inmate population. If a decision were made for ICE to also phase out private prisons, CCA and GEO would lose an additional 35,000 paid-for beds, which represents about 70 percent of the entire ICE inmate population.
Both the CCA and GEO disagreed with the findings in the Inspector General’s report, and their responses to those findings were included in the Appendix portion of that report. In an e-mail to me, Pablo Paez, vice-president of corporate relations for GEO Group, noted that his company considered the report “severely flawed in its attempts to compare prisons operated by private entities to publicly operated facilities. As we previously stated in our detailed response to the [Inspector General’s] report, it is factually incorrect to assert that privately operated facilities are less safe than publicly operated facilities.”
GEO’s contention is that it is much more difficult to control a homogenous population, whose members are likely to group together to follow a single leader or small coterie, than it is to control a diversified inmate population that might contain several groups, each with its own leader and interests. In response to the Inspector General’s report, GEO said, “The contract-facility population responds as one to any issue, real or perceived. The group leaders can control or direct a large majority of the population in a much larger fashion than in facilities with a mixed U.S. citizenry. Traditional populations do not follow recognized inmate leaders in a ‘one for all, and all for one’ mentality.”
The CCA’s official response was similar, making the claim that “demographic variables, particularly as they relate to housing a homogenous foreign-national population, will have significant impact on rates of inmate misconduct.”
While the leading private prison corporations were disagreeing with the DOJ’s decision, Libal and others who want to see private prisons disappear altogether saw it as a big step forward.
“A lot of the credit for this change deserves to go to the detainees themselves, who have gone on hunger strikes, protested, and created a fuss over the inadequate conditions in these facilities — often putting themselves at risk in doing so,” Libal said.
The real tragedy, he continued, “is that we’ve built a society that relies on locking up people. Maintaining the mass incarceration of people cannot be an employment project. There is something profoundly wrong in keeping someone in prison in order to keep someone’s job, and to keep shareholders happy, but that’s the model we’ve built.”
A lot of people who work in these prisons or work in the supporting infrastructure are going to be out of work, Libal acknowledged.
“That’s not their fault,” he said. “But that we built a model that depends on keeping people in prison to employ others is very wrong. We need to do a paradigm shift in this country away from the idea you can incarcerate yourself out of social ills and toward viewing poverty and addiction as social issues that need to be dealt with in an entirely different way.”
I asked both the CCA and GEO Group what their immediate plans would be for the prison beds the BOP will no longer be using. While GEO’s Paez did not address the issue, Johnathan Burns, director of public affairs for CCA, suggested that there were several opportunities on the horizon for those beds.
“For example,” he wrote, “our real estate-only solution helps government deliver needed facility space in a cost-effective manner while providing its own staffing and management services. We’ve also greatly expanded our residential re-entry offerings, which help inmates prepare to successfully return to their communities. In fact, this spring we won a re-bid of a Federal Bureau of Prisons contract for these critical services. It’s important to note that the DOJ announcement relates only to BOP correctional facilities,” he wrote, implying that there is still plenty of money to be made in the private incarceration business.