Federal Government to Discontinue Use of Private Prisons

Citing a study that revealed private prisons to be less safe and secure than government-run prisons, the United States Department of Justice has announced that it will begin phasing out the federal government's use of private prisons for housing federal inmates.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, the federal government's contract prisons must be "held to a high standard" and "accountable," "accredited," and "answerable." These private prisons, which the Department of Justice has utilized to help manage the federal inmate population, include 12 contract facilities, including Great Plains Correctional Institution in Hinton, Oklahoma.

In a Department of Justice blog post, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates writes that the federal government began relying on contract facilities to manage an exploding inmate population: 

"The federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, often at a far faster rate than the Bureau of Prisons could accommodate in their own facilities. In an effort to manage the rising prison population, about a decade ago, the bureau began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to confine some federal inmates. By 2013, as both the federal prison population and the proportion of federal prisoners in private facilities reached their peak, the bureau was housing approximately 15 percent of its population, or nearly 30,000 inmates, in privately operated prisons."

However, since 2013, the federal prison population has declined by roughly 25,000 inmates. The dwindling population, coupled with the DOJ report's findings that "private prisons tend to be more violent" than Board of Prisons-operated facilities, has led the Department of Justice to announce that it will substantially decrease its dependence on contract prisons, eventually phasing out their use completely.

The federal government will not immediately suspend all private prisons operations. In fact, the Great Plains facility in Hinton is under contract to operate until 2020, meaning that the facility should remain in business for the next four years.

According to Hinton Mayor Shelley Newton, the prison is the town's largest employer, providing some 300 jobs to the city's 3,200 residents. Its impending closure is concerning for many in Hinton.

Still, the decision to stop utilizing for-profit facilities to house federal inmates is applauded by civil rights groups, including the ACLU. The director of the organization's National Prison Project, David Fathi, calls the DOJ decision "important and groundbreaking."

It is important to note that the cessation of private prisons applies only to federal inmates. State Departments of Corrections will likely continue their relationships with contract facilities, particularly in Oklahoma, where the inmate population continues to grow and where there is one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. 

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, there are four private prisons currently contracting with the state.

 Image credit: Julie Tuason