Private Prisons Are Back: Here's Why That's a Terrible Idea

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed course on curbing the use of private prisons at the Justice Department. He rescinded an August 2016 memo directing the phaseout of for-profit prisons, which followed a critical Inspector General (IG) report on these facilities. The 2016 memo states that private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services [and] programs,” “do not save substantially on costs,” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” Attorney General Sessions did not address any of these concerns in his new memo, but simply stated that the 2016 policy “impaired” the Justice Department’s ability to “meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Session’s move is not unexpected. However, it comes after a number of critical reports on the cost effectiveness and wisdom of using for-profit companies to provide such important services. In addition to the Justice Department IG’s report from last summer, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) advisory council report issued in December called for much greater oversight and accountability at private detention facilities. Last fall, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) called on DHS to follow the Justice Department’s lead and pause its contracting out to private prison companies while determining whether it would also phase them out.

The private detention industry has fought back hard against greater oversight and cutting its taxpayer-funded revenue stream from the federal government. They have lobbied against legislation such as the Private Prison Information Act, which would require these for-profit facilities to “make the same information available to the public that Federal prisons and correctional facilities are required to make available.” POGO supports this legislation.

Not surprisingly they have used age-old means of securing access to powerful politicians in Washington, DC. For instance, Geo Group—a major private operator of federal detention facilities—hired two of Session’s former Senate aides, David Stewart and Ryan Robichaux, to lobby on the issue of private detention facilities, according to Politico. These hires are not atypical. According to Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group, “Seventy percent of CCA and GEO lobbyists have previously worked” for Congress. (CCA, another major private prison company, recently rebranded itself as CoreCivic.) Geo Group also helped pay for President Trump’s transition efforts.

As it becomes increasingly likely that more of our taxpayer dollars will pour down on these companies, these private detention facilities raise a number of important oversight questions, such as: Are taxpayers getting a good deal? How well are they managed and overseen by the government? What information is made public to allow for informed discussion about them? What are the conditions detainees are kept in? Should we give the function of depriving individuals of their rights and freedom of movement to for-profit companies at all?