Justice Department Announces the End of Private Prisons

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Prison-reform activists have quite the reason to celebrate today: the Justice Department has announced it will end the use of private prisons. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced in a memo this morning that Justice Department officials are not to renew contracts with private prison operators upon their expiration. In the memo, Yates writes: “[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 Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

According to the memo, prison populations increased 800 percent between 1980 and 2013—the rapid increase of inmates exceeded the capacity of what the federal Bureau of Prisons could handle, which lead to the creation of private prisons within the federal system. But since the peak of prisoner population in 2013, at which point 30,000 inmates, or about 15 percent of all prisoners, were housed in private prisons, there has been a steady decline in inmates. The decline is partially a result of new, progressive prison policies that reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Private prisons, Yates wrote, “served an important role during a difficult time period” but ultimately proved to be sub-par to federally operated facilities. She continued:

Today, the Bureau is amending an existing contract solicitation to reduce and upcoming contract award from a maximum of 10,080 to a maximum of 3,600. Taken together, these actions will allow the Bureau to end the housing of inmates at three or more private contract facilities over the next year, and will reduce the total private prison population to less than 14,200 inmates by May 1, 2017—a greater than 50 percent decrease since 2013.

“We have to be realistic about the time it will take,” Yates said, “but that really depends on the continuing decline of the federal prison population, and that’s really hard to accurately predict.”

It will certainly take some time, as everyone surely knows such is the nature of federal policy and change, but today’s announcement is undoubtedly noteworthy and certainly a topic worthy of optimism.

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