Justice — and punishment in the name of that justice — should not be viewed as an opportunity for profit. The notion of fairness and the consideration of civil rights must be dealt with on a higher plane than the simple balancing of dollars and cents.
Because of that, the Obama administration’s announcement that it will work to phase out the use of private prisons as part of the federal corrections system is long overdue. And while the move will, in truth, impact a small percentage of prisoners and have a minimal effect on how Americans enact their notion of crime and punishment, it is important in raising the level of discourse surrounding the issue.
Last week, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced a change in direction for the federal prison system by issuing a directive for officials to either decline to renew contracts for private prisons or scale them back when they come up for renewal. In support of the move, Yates cited a declining federal prison population and a report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which found that private prisons are less efficient and more dangerous than government-run facilities.
Overall, phasing out private prisons will have more of a symbolic impact than a practical one. A total of 13 private prisons house about 22,000 federal inmates — about 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons inmate population. Furthermore, the directive does not include state prisons, which house a much larger percentage of the nation’s roughly 1.5 million prisoners; nor does it include privately run detention centers under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or the U.S. Marshals Service. One of the largest privately run immigration facilities is a 1,575-bed detention center near Tacoma that is run by the GEO Group.
The Justice Department began contracting with private prisons in the late 1990s to help accommodate a growing inmate population. For most of the past two decades, the percentage of incarcerations has expanded, but in the past couple years there have been increasing calls for reformation of the nation’s justice system and a decline in the percentage of incarcerations. Critics have questioned the efficacy of mandatory sentences for low-level offenders, and much attention has been focused upon the lifelong impact of imprisonment for minor crimes.
It should be noted that the rate of violent crime has consistently dropped over the past several decades. There are many intertwining factors that impact the crime rate — at least one study, for example, has pointed to the outlawing of lead-based paint and a resulting drop in lead poisoning, which has been shown to cause mental deficiencies and increase violent tendencies — but the impact of increased incarceration rates cannot be ignored. If criminals are locked up, they can’t commit more crimes.
Yet there is a need for discussion about justice and the role that private prisons should play in the administration of that justice. Yates wrote, “They 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.”
Most important, private prisons run counter to what should be the nation’s notion of justice. It flies in the face of logic to suggest that an industry where profit is the motive can administer an effective and fair measure of justice. The Obama administration is wise to begin phasing them out.