Justice Department will not renew contracts with private prisons

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A protester displays a placard reading "Stop corporate greed. Close private prisons" as he takes part in an Occupy Phoenix demonstration in Phoenix, Arizona October 17, 2011. Occupy Phoenix is part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month with a few people and expanded to protest marches and camps across the US and abroad. REUTERS/Eric Thayer (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR2SRW7

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ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Twelve percent of inmates serving sentences for federal crimes in the U.S. are incarcerated in privately-run prisons. But according to a report by the Justice Department inspector general, those prisons are less safe and more expensive than government-run prisons. The findings led the Justice Department to announce this week, it will begin phasing out contracts with all private prisons.

To explore how that decision was reached and its impact, I’m joined from Washington by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

And, Carrie, what did the Justice Department identify as the biggest problem for these prisons run by private companies.

CARRIE JOHNSON, NPR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The deputy attorney general, Sally Yeats, told me that simply, government-run prisons operate better. By contracting out with private companies, the government saves very little money, and in fact, runs into a lot more trouble. The inspector general at the Justice Department found assaults, uses of force, and contraband, especially contraband cell phones, were much higher at private prison facilities, rather than the ones operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons around the country.

STEWART: Why is there more trouble in private prisons?

JOHNSON: Well, there are a couple of arguments about that. One is somewhat some of the operations at private prisons are understaffed, both in terms of correction officers — what we would call guards — and also medical personnel. And inmates there have expressed a lot of dissatisfaction about the quality of medical care they’re getting in these private contract facilities, as well as the quality of food, sometimes not even enough food, they complain. And, of course, not enough supervision from guards, which allows some of these contraband cell phones and assaults on inmates by other inmates, assaults on inmates against guards, and the those are all on the rise, according to the I.G., in these private contract facilities.

STEWART: It sounds like it was a combination of a decision that was both financial and about safety and conditions.

JOHNSON: Yes, that’s right. And in fact, it’s important to note the Justice Department says that demand for outside prison space — for private contract prison space — has declined a lot just in the last few years. In the last few years alone, 25,000 inmates in federal prisons have left those prisons because of changing in the way we punish low-level drug criminals and other policy decisions.

So, there’s a lot more space in the government-run prisons to move about 22,000 inmates who are now in the contract prisons back into the regular government-operated prisons.

Demand is much lower than it was back, say, in the 90s, when violent crime was on the rise, and drug punishments, punishments for drug crimes, were very, very steep in those days.

STEWART: Sentencing and prison reform advocates have hailed this as a win of some sorts. Is it really?

JOHNSON: Well, it is a big symbolic victory for people who have been pressing, including the ACLU, prisoners’ rights groups, and others for a long time against the use of private-contract prisons.

That said, this decision by the Justice Department, affects only 22,000 inmates in some federal facilities. It does not affect the vast majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. in state or local prisons.

And just as importantly, this decision does not apply to immigration detainees, people who are in the country illegally, and who are detained awaiting some kind of a decision by an immigration judge.

The Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations Customs Enforcement say they are going to continue to use private prisons and that is where the fight is going to move in the years ahead.

STEWART: Carrie Johnson from NPR — thanks for sharing your reporting.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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