Why The Federal Government's Move To Stop Using Private Prisons Is Such A Big Deal

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The Department of Justice just made a huge step in overhauling the way our criminal justice system works. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced on Thursday that the department will begin phasing out the use of private prisons over the next few years, with the goal of ultimately ending the federal use of privately-operated prisons.

“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,” she wrote in a memo.

The Attorney General’s office is instructing officials to either decline to renew or "substantially reduce" the scope of contracts with private prison operators when they come up for renewal. About 12% of federal prisoners, or about 22,000 people, are currently housed in private prisons according to The Huffington Post. The 6% of state prisoners in for-profit prisons, as reported by the ACLU, will not be affected.

The announcement follows the release of a report by the Office of the Inspector General that found that for-profit prisons did not measure up to prisons run by the federal government. The report stated that the privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents per-capita than their public counterparts, including higher rates of assault. The private operations also improperly put inmates into solitary confinement and lacked oversight regarding health care for inmates.

Private prisons, which operate as for-profit businesses, have been heavily criticized by criminal justice reform advocates. The ACLU condemns their use, citing numerous accusations of violence and bad conditions and saying that “the American economy should not include locking people in cages for profit.” A recent Mother Jones investigation showed serious problems in the industry, including understaffing and violent incidents. Supporters of private prison use have said that they are cheaper and more efficient than government-run facilities.

Criminal justice reform advocates, including former Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, praised the decision. In a press statement, the Vermont senator called the decision “an important step in the right direction.” Sanders has previously spoken out against the industry.
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