(Published on Huffington Post)
This past week, the Justice Department announced that it would finally begin ending what has essentially been a 20-year experiment involving incarceration of federal prisoners in privately-owned prisons. Immediately, the stock prices of the two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, plummeted more than 37 percentage points.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. government currently houses 11.4 percent of the roughly 200,000 federal prisoners in contract prisons -- around 22,000 inmates. They began this practice in the mid-1990s as a means to manage the population explosion of the 'tough-on-crime' legislation introduced during the Clinton administration. Over the next 20 years, the overall U.S. prison population more than doubled, causing a severe need for places to house all of these criminals.
As with any good business idea, corporations saw an opportunity. They capitalized on it, making mass incarceration possible through private prison facilities, becoming extremely profitable in the meantime. In the first quarter of 2016 alone, CCA and GEO grossed nearly $1 billion. It is a huge industry, one which requires over a dozen lobbying firms to constantly protect its interests and to ensure that it keeps getting to house as many of the nation's incarcerated as they can.
After recent adjustments in federal sentencing policies, however, the number of prisoners in the federal system are beginning to subside. But the ebb of prisoners leaving is not exactly a mass exodus that would alleviate the need for more cells. At the end of 2014, for instance, the Bureau of Prisons was at 128 percent capacity. While the population has continued to decrease slowly in the two years since, it has not diminished enough to accomodate the influx of prisoners from the soon-to-close private facilities. So what's the rest of the story behind the withdraw from the private prison option?
If you've ever seen the later seasons of the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, you've had a glimpse of some of the problems with private prisons in America. On the show, the women's federal prison is taken over by a private corporation in an effort to save tax dollars and streamline the operation. Of course the first thing a business does is find ways where they can save money and maximize profits. In this case, that meant hiring less qualified, hence lower paid, staff, capitalizing on the space in the dorms by doubling the amount of beds, replacing quality made-on-site meals with prepackaged unidentifiable slop, and launching a women's lingerie industry, where the female prisoner were paid worse-than-sweatshop wages to manufacture pricey undergarments for outside consumers. Every change had a ripple effect, negatively impacting nearly every aspect of the prison. Turning the prison into a private venture resulted in a spike of corruption, criminal activity within the prison -- by both inmates and guards -- inappropriate relationships between staff and those housed there, and violence to a point of riots and even death.
To the uninitiated viewer, this made for good TV and was likely dismissed by most as highly dramatized and not something that actually occurs in facilities like this. But in reality, as the Justice Department and those on the inside know, the show was actually a very softened look at what happens on the other side of private prison walls.
"They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources," wrote Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a memo to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in explanation of the decision to end the government's reliance on private lock-ups. "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."
It can be difficult to see and know what actually happens behind prison walls. Any inspections are generally announced months in advance and are often performed by groups who have something to gain from the prison system. Political pressures often work to mask the problems that exist. And the overall culture of prison, for administration and prisoners alike, is a secretive one that rarely lends to transparency. However, every now and then a glimpse inside is had.
Recently, one such look inside private prisons has revealed a scene that made even the Justice Department flinch. It proved that private prison corporations are rife with problems that make government-run facilities seem like oases by comparison. For example, the inspector general's review found that the contract prisons had a much higher rate of contraband, with confiscations of cellphones at eight times the amount of BOP facilities. They also had signficantly greater rates of assaults and other unignorable issues.