The Private Prison Industry Is Making A Comeback

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An unmarked police truck patrols the outside of a detention center in Eloy, Ariz. President Trump's promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally and his selection of tough-on-crime Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general could mean big money for the private prison industry. (Ricardo Arduengo/AP)
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The Justice Department will return to using private prisons, reversing an Obama administration decision to stop using them because studies showed they were less safe and effective than federally run prisons.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Lauren-Brooke Eisen (@lbeisen), senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, about problems with the private prison industry and how private facilities might be reformed. Eisen is writing a book on the issue entitled “Inside Private Prisons.”

Interview Highlights

On the reversal from the Obama administration policy

“Well, it is an interesting reversal, but it’s one that a lot of analysts and people who cover the industry had predicted would happen. Interestingly enough, with Attorney General Sessions’s guidance to the Bureau of Prisons last week, it was a very short memo. Attorney General Sessions gave very little explanation as to why they were reversing course on this guidance.”

On why the Trump administration is moving back to private prisons

“Well, the new administration has called for a crackdown on what they falsely see as a rise in crime. And, you know, this is sort of a harbinger of things to come. It’s an indication that Attorney General Sessions and the administration might be concerned about running out of available bed space in the Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. One of the reasons why — one of the most compelling reasons — that the Obama administration decided to phase out its reliance on these private prisons is because the [Bureau of Prisons] population had started to decline.

“The number of people in federal prison has decreased over the last couple of years. And because of this decrease, the Justice Department decided that it didn’t need to rely on these private prisons. And that makes sense. That’s why one would contract with private prisons in the first place, is to provide this extra bed capacity. But when you no longer need that bed capacity, that’s the time when you should start to phase out those contracts.”

On lobbying by private prisons

“As of last Friday, the stocks of GEO Group and CoreCivic, the two largest private prison corporations in the United States, had seen a 100 percent increase in their stocks since the election. So, we’ve seen a huge uptick in share prices. GEO Group and CoreCivic have each given about $250,000 to support Trump’s inauguration events, and the GEO Group — through its own political action committee — had also given some funding to the campaign of Donald Trump, as well.”

On how many inmates there are in private prisons

“There are almost 190,000 inmates in federal prison today. But if we zoom out and look at the entire prison population of the United States, we have about 8 percent of the state and federal prison population behind bars in private prisons. So, to break it down in terms of numbers, it’s about a 126,000 inmates that are held in private prison facilities. But that number is also a little bit conservative because it doesn’t account for the approximately 8 to 10,000 people who are held in private immigration detention facilities.”

On cost per prisoner at a federally owned prison vs. a private prison

“So, again, it depends on how you look at the data. There’s marginal costs and incremental costs, so when you look at the cost of a prison, it becomes a little more complicated because you’re really only saving money when you close down a wing of a prison, close down a prison, or reduce the number of staff. And so, federal prisons are usually a little bit more expensive than in-state prisons, just because there tends to be a little bit more security. But again, those costs tend to be different from prison to prison.”

“What happens is, if you’re looking at state contracts, the states basically pay the private prison operator to house the inmates, and it’s all in the contract. Where it can get tricky, and where a lot of people, who are adamant that private prisons shouldn’t exist are these inherent conflicts of interest when the corporation are actually paid a set amount no matter how many people are in their facilities. And so, what that does is, it ensures that the private prison operator is paid, even if the prison is not full.”

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On treatment in private prisons vs. government-run prisons

“That’s an excellent question, and I am writing a book on private prisons called ‘Inside Private Prisons,’ and it’s one of the questions that I explore in the book. It’s a complicated question. The Inspector General’s office of the DOJ last August issued a report indicating that private prisons at the federal level simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources. And they do not maintain the same level of safety and security that government-run prisons do. Now, that’s looking just at the federal level. There have also been a lot of lawsuits filed, a lot of allegations about what happens in private prisons at the state level. But that also happens in state-run prisons. There are, you know, Rikers Island is a jail in New York City, and that has certainly come under a lot of scrutiny for allegations of rape and sexual assault and unhygienic living conditions.

“So, the point is that it’s a very hard question to answer, whether one is better off in a state-run prison or in a privately-run or operated prison. But at the end of the day, what we really need to look at is outcomes, and how we can improve public and private prisons so that recidivism rates are reduced, and so that we ensure that those who do spend their time behind bars at private prisons are being treated well, are receiving the same services if not better services that they would receive at a state-run prison. So it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. And what I’ve found in my interviews with inmates is, even those who had… whose time behind bars in a private prison might have been better than their time in a state prison, at the end of the day, most of them say, ‘But when I think that someone’s making money off of me, that breaks my heart.’”

On which prison system does a better job with recidivism rates

“The recidivism rate nationwide is pretty high. It’s between 40 to 60 percent. So that indicates that the nation as a whole, public corrections are not doing a great job at making sure that the people who leave their prisons and jails are not returning. And that’s something that corrections across the country needs to work on. And when we look at private prisons, the data is very, very difficult to come by because of what happens in practicality is you might spend a year in a state prison, then you might to a private prison for six-months or a year, and then you might finish out your programming or your reentry programming at a state-run facility before you’re released. So it’s very hard to track that recidivism data, but that’s something that we as a country really need to get better at tracking.”

On incentives for private prisons that have low recidivism rates

“That’s something that’s fairly new. So Australia, in fact, now has two new private prison contracts where they incentivize a reduction in recidivism rates through bonuses paid to these companies. And those are very new contracts, we don’t know what the results are. But we’ve seen some positive results in the Peterborough Prison in the U.K. and in halfway house contracts with the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania has provided bonuses to private halfway house providers who can reduce recidivism rates and beat the state’s recidivism benchmark.”

On advice for the Trump administration

“I think that the Trump administration should look long and hard at every prison they contract with, and look at the record of that prison. Look at the safety and security levels, look at the level of correctional services that they provide or didn’t provide. Additionally, it’s incredibly important that the federal government restructure these contracts to ensure that private prison operators are focusing on reducing recidivism, improving outcomes for the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated. It’s really important that we restructure these contracts around the nation’s public policy goals, which at the end of the day is to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.”

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