Holding the Government Accountable

Senators Question Administration’s Reversal on Phasing out Private Prisons

(Photo: Pixabay)

Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are questioning the Justice Department’s reversal of its 2016 decision to phase out the use private prisons by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday, the Senators said this policy shift would “hinder recent progress towards reforming our broken criminal justice system.” The letter pointed to an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that found there are more safety and security incidents per capita in private prisons than in government-run prisons.

Last August, the Justice Department announced in a memo by then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates that it planned to phase out its use of contract private prisons to house federal inmates. Yates wrote that the Department’s decision was based on the fact that private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources” as government-run prisons, “do not save substantially on costs,” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” According to the memo, about 15 percent of federal prisoners were housed in private facilities as of 2013.

This February, in a one-paragraph directive that cited no research, Sessions rescinded Yates’ memo, saying that the policy change “impaired the Bureau [of Prison]’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correction system.”

Given the reduction in the federal prison population over the last several years and bipartisan interest in criminal reform that may further reduce the number of people in federal custody, it is unclear whether more federal prison facilities—publicly run or private—are needed.

In their letter to Sessions, Van Hollen and Booker requested a written response from the Attorney General explaining what research the Justice Department used to come to its decision. The Senators also asked how many new private prisons the Bureau of Prisons plans to sign contracts with or help construct over the next ten years. The Trump administration has been slow to respond to Congressional inquiries—let’s hope Senators Van Hollen and Booker get a response soon.