DOJ Announces a Reduction in its Private Prison Usage…With One Enormous Caveat

© Josh Sager – August 2016

Recently, the Department of Justice announced that has decided to start phasing out its utilization of private prisons to house its prisoners. Over the coming years, the DOJ will review or conclude its contracts with the 13 private prisons that it is currently outsourcing incarcerations to. While this decision has been met with wide praise and declarations that it spells the end for the private prison industry on the federal level, this celebration is premature.

The DOJ is not the largest utilizer of private prisons on the federal level—Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) is, and they will continue using private prisons to house their non-criminal detainees. Currently, ICE partners with 46 private prisons which house approximately 62% of the undocumented immigrants who are being held pending legal proceedings or deportation.

Privatized ICE detention is the fastest growing segment of the federal private prisons market and this decision by the DOJ will likely only accelerate this growth. For-profit immigration detention is easier and more lucrative than privatized criminal incarceration, as most of the undocumented immigrants being detained are otherwise law-abiding and far less likely to cause disturbances than the criminals being detained in prisons. As criminal private prisons lose their DOJ contracts, many will simply seek ICE contracts to house undocumented immigrants. In many cases, this will not be a complicated process, as the private prisons are actually owned by the very same companies (e.g. Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group) that currently run the privatized immigration detention centers.


In order to ensure that private prisons usage is reduced, rather than simply shuffled between government entities, ICE must also begin to phase out its use of private prisons. This will be extremely difficult given that a majority of ICE detainees are contracted out and that 9 of the 10 largest immigration detention centers are private, but is necessary.

Private prisons in the United States were sold as a cost-effective and innovative way to incarcerate criminals. Proponents argued that they were more efficient and could implement more innovative rehabilitation methods than public prisons. Unfortunately, these promises have not been realized and there has been a series of serious scandals plaguing the industry for years.


Rather than save money, studies of private prisons have concluded that they are actually more expensive than public prisons. While they save money by cutting staff salaries and reducing upkeep on facilities, they also lobby for more “tough on crime” laws to increase the flow of prisoners, neglect rehabilitation efforts (which are expensive and reduce the likelihood that the inmate will return to their care), and have a history of riots and escapes. Additionally, private prisons cherry-pick prisoners so that they take the healthiest, youngest, and least troubled inmates (the least expensive to care for), leaving the sick, mentally ill, disruptive, and violent inmates to the public system, where they drive up costs.

Put simply, the evidence show that private prisons are an abject failure and must be phased out entirely—this includes private incarcerations of criminals at the federal, state and local levels, as well as the detention of undocumented immigrants and refugees pending legal proceedings. Only targeting one wing of this problem is a good start, but it risks creating a game of legal whack a mole, where private prisons don’t reduce their populations, but simply move between patrons as the law changes around them.

If you are interested in more information about private prisons and want to have it delivered in a much more palatable format, check out the John Oliver segment on the issue:

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