The Department of Justice announced this week that it will move away from using private prisons to house federal prisoners. The decision will affect 13 federal prisons, which house about 22,000 inmates.
That is about 11 percent of the federal prison population, and a fraction of the 2 million people in state and local prisons across the country. But many prison reform advocates say it’s a monumental and symbolic step.
Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd talks with Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online racial justice organization Color of Change, about the significance of the Justice Department’s decision.
Interview Highlights: Rashad Robinson
On the possibility that the decision will push states in the same direction
“We do think that this is an important step forward. We also understand that the ongoing human rights violations that keep coming up from these private prisons, because of their warped incentive structure, gives us the ability to say to states that they’ve been warned, that the federal government has looked deeply, they’ve done research and they’ve seen that this type of relationship doesn’t work. To the extent that now that states have been sent a very clear message from the federal government, we think it’s going to give us strength in many states that we think will have advocacy.
We also understand this is going to continue to weaken an industry that, at every turn, cuts corners. So as this industry continues to get weakened, as we’ve seen its stocks continue to fall since this announcement, we think that it’s going to give us more ability to be able to put an end to private prisons and this idea that profit should be inside of our justice system.”
On government-run prisons compared to private prisons
“I think that there are absolutely problems with some of our government-run prisons. But the fact of the matter is that we have much more control and oversight over those prisons. We can’t even do Freedom of Information Acts to get real information and data on private prisons, because they are exempt, even though so many of our tax dollars are going to those private prisons. For the private prison industry to say that cost and security shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not these contracts are renewed is absolutely laughable and speaks to the flawed incentive structures that these corporations have. These corporations have spent millions and millions of dollars lobbying on Capitol Hills and states around the country and federally to keep these businesses in place. All the while, while cutting corners.
It’s not just this study, but it’s been study after study, it’s been internal investigations by journalists at Mother Jones and Nation Magazine and others. Over and over again we see that this system simply doesn’t work — it doesn’t’ work for people who are paying taxes, it doesn’t work for people who are inside the system. They have no incentive whatsoever to rehabilitate, right? The profit margins of private prisons relies on beds being filled. And so, they not just lobby for their own contracts, but they lobby for things like mandatory minimum sentences, like increased sentencings for drug offenses. They have an incentive to see more people in our country behind bars and less people living prosperous and healthy lives. And when a business is based on that, that business is bad for America.”
On alternatives for a better federal prison system
“I think a federal system that would look better would be really focused on rehabilitation. It would be focused on ensuring that people got the tools that they needed to be able to live healthy lives. For folks that couldn’t live in society, that the system would be set up in a humane way, but people would also be given the tools to be productive when possible, that families would be able to find ways to be connected still with their loved ones. Because we’ve seen study after study about how young people being connected — even with their family members behind bars — strengthens their life outcomes. So we do think that there are ways in which we can have incarceration that is both humane and that is also cost effective. And private prisons don’t do either one of those things.
We also just think that we’ve over-incarcerated in this country. The war on drugs, our sentencing structure, has put people behind bars who should be treated for other things, whether it’s mental health or drug addictions. People should be given second chances. We continue to see incarceration as a first resort, instead of a last resort in so many places around the country. And we’ve got to rethink that, if we’re going to get the best out of all our citizens.”