WASHINGTON (CNS) — In August, a federal Justice Department official issued a memo announcing the federal government must stop using privately run, for-profit prisons to house inmates.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, in her Aug. 18 memo to the federal Bureau of Prisons, said private prisons “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 (Justice) Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security” — with more assaults by inmates on staff and other inmates, and eight times the contraband cellphones than in federally run prisons.
Private companies run 13 federal prisons — accounting for about 22,000 prisoners out of a total of 193,000 federal inmates.
While Yates in her memo said that it was difficult to know when the inmates no longer would be held in privately run facilities, the government expects by next May to stop housing them in at least three such prisons, which would bring the number to less than 14,200 remaining in such facilities.
The Washington Post reported Oct. 14 that the private prison industry is lobbying against the Justice Department plan and urging lawmakers to question it. Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group are the two largest private prison operators. The Post also quoted U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, as saying Justice’s plan would “undermine the effectiveness of the system’s rehabilitation programs.”
Left untouched by the directive are federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals service detainees who are not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons but are being detained in private facilities.
Nor does the directive affect the states’ prisoner population, which numbers roughly 2.2 million, according to Nicole D. Porter, advocacy director for the Sentencing Project, which seeks to convince state governments to roll back mandatory-minimum and “three strikes” laws that have boosted imprisonment rates over the past generation. Even with only 6.8 percent of states’ prisoners in for-profit prisons, according to Porter, that still comes to close to 150,000 inmates.
The concept of governments contracting out the business of locking up prisoners has long struck a discordant note in some quarters.
One of the first concerted Catholic voices to oppose for-profit prisons was a 2004 pastoral statement by the Bishops’ Advisory Committee for the Catholic Committee of the South, representing more than 40 bishops from a dozen states, called “Wardens From Wall Street.”
“Previous attempts to introduce the profit motive into prisons have failed to respect the fundamental human dignity of every prisoner,” the statement said.
The practice harms both prisoners and staff, the bishops argued. When prisoners become “units” from which profit is derived, instead of being recognized as individual human beings and children of God, they are more likely to be exploited, abused and violated, and become more violent themselves, they said.
When it comes to guards, “we recognize the inherent dignity of labor and are troubled by the working conditions and wages of those entrusted with the care of prisoners in private facilities,” they added, noting that to maximize profits, private prisons redistribute funds so that less money goes to employees who work with prisoners and more to executives and shareholders.
“We are even more deeply troubled that the private prison industry has actively supported institutions that lobby for harsher sentencing laws, which increase the prison population,” the statement said. It’s one of the dangers of privatizing incarceration, according to Richard Dieter, the former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“If you are a private entity and building or staffing a prison, your job and your company depends on keeping those cells full of people,” in much the same way a hotel chain seeks to fill the guest rooms at a hotel, Dieter said.
Another danger is the matter of who’s minding the store, according to Dieter. “The private sector can be very good at turning out cars or building facilities, but what they may not be good at is strict adherence to constitutional principles. It’s not that they’re just bad, but it’s not their expertise,” he said.
While Porter expressed surprise at the Justice Department directive, it was not quite a bolt out of the blue for Dieter.
“This is a president, one of the first, if not the first ever, who visited people in prison,” he said of President Barack Obama. “The United States is one of the world leaders in incarceration per capita. … The amount of federal private prisons is pretty small compared to the whole state prison system. It’s much larger than the federal system, but you address what you can.”
“It should remain the responsibility of state government and not relegated to a private entity,” agreed Porter, who said “accountability and transparency” go missing when government contracts out such an essential government function.
“For-profit prison corporations have in the past made political contributions on the state level to the state legislators who were in charge of keeping people in prison longer,” said Dale Recinella, a Catholic lay prison chaplain in Florida and author of two books on prison ministry, most recently “When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry,” “These are the kind of conflicts of interest in what the bishops were warning about” in “Wardens From Wall Street,” he added. “It’s too full of pitfalls.”
Recinella also blanched at the profit motive in the prison industry. “Corporations are looking to their managers to make profit objectives, usually on a quarterly basis at least,” he told Catholic News Service. “If one is looking at those objectives as the goal, the spending of money to care for the people in their charge — for example, for medical, for dental, for psychological services — could well be sacrificed in order to make the profits that the investors demand.”
While changing the political landscape in dozens of states is a daunting task, it’s necessary to Porter, who also criticized “the high rate of (U.S.) incarceration compared to other Western democracies.”
“We incarcerate people past the rate of diminishing returns — given that most people ‘age out’ of crime,” she said. “We’ve saddled U.S. prison policy with sentences of decades in prison or life terms in prison without any possibility of release. Public safety doesn’t have to be comprised if we have a fairer approach to criminal justice policy and imprisonment policy.”