Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced new guidelines (justice.gov) that will result in a significant increase in the prison population, directing federal prosecutors to seek the toughest penalties possible for nonviolent defendants. Those prisoners will have to be incarcerated somewhere, which is perhaps the reason for the Attorney General’s February memo reversing an Obama-era directive to phase out the Justice Department’s use of private prisons. While the private prison population will likely increase, taxpayers can expect little in terms of accountability in return for footing the bill for government contracts with private prison companies. Even though for-profit prisons are fulfilling a government role by housing federal prisoners, the industry remains shrouded in secrecy and shielded from meaningful public oversight.
By asserting their status as private entities, private prison companies exempt themselves from the public’s chief tool for transparency and accountability, the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), making it harder to assess whether private prisons are comparable to their federally-run counterparts. A damning 2016 report by the Justice Department found that private prisons were less safe and secure (oig.justice.gov) than government-operated facilities, and that Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversight of private prisons was often lacking. Private prisons under federal contract can shield
from public scrutiny factors that are necessary to determine whether private prisons are adequately performing their contractual duties, including: the number of deaths and sexual assaults that occur while in custody; the number and types of security breaches that occur; guard-to-prisoner ratios and data on overcrowding; information on prisoners’ access to medical care; and whether the private prisons are in compliance with their contractual obligations.
In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that about 18 percent (bjs.gov) (34,900) of federal prisoners were held in private prison facilities. The statistics for immigrant detention facilities are much larger – a 2016 DHS advisory committee report noted that 65 percent (dhs.gov) of Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) detainees are held in for-profit detention centers. By implementing policies expected to further increase both the prison population and the number of undocumented immigrants in detention, the Trump administration has given private prison companies a significant boost. The two largest companies, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and Geo Group, saw a dramatic increase in stock prices (money.cnn.com) this year. Moreover, a month before the 2016 election, Geo Group hired two former Sessions aides (politico.com) to lobby for federal government contracts with private prisons. Sessions also supported private prisons (motherjones.com) in his home state of Alabama, as attorney general and later as Senator.
By housing tens of thousands of federal prisoners, the private prison industry is a proxy for the federal government. As a condition of this role, private prisons should be accountable to the taxpayers from which they profit. Congress and the public should demand that private prisons are subject to the same public access and information laws with which federal prisons must comply, to ensure that they are living up to their contractual obligations, that they are not wasting taxpayer dollars, and that they are as safe and secure as their federal counterparts.