The US Department of Justice's decision to no longer use private prisons for its federal prisoners is a groundbreaking first step, but the August 18 announcement doesn't spell the end to private prisons: Private prison corporations will continue to control 46 immigration detention centers that detain nearly 25,000 people (or 62 percent of the country's 33,676 immigrant detainees) on any given day.
It is perhaps telling that in the hours after the announcement made headlines yesterday, stock prices for both Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, two of the country's largest private prison corporations, dropped 40 percent, but by today they had started to climb again.
In the Department of Justice's memo on August 18, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed officials to decline to renew contracts with private prison operators when they expire or to "substantially reduce" the contracts' scope. Her reasoning was that private prisons "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources," "do not substantially save on costs," and "do not maintain the same level of safety and security" as the prisons operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The decision impacts 13 privately run federal prisons and approximately 22,600 federal prisoners.
The BOP runs more than 100 prisons that incarcerate more than 170,000 people. Those figures do not include the 22,600 people currently incarcerated in private prisons, many of whom are non-citizens and are likely to be deported after serving their sentences. As the BOP declines to renew its contracts with CCA and GEO Group, it will most likely begin shifting those prisoners to government-run federal prisons to finish their sentences.
While advocates and organizers have hailed the announcement as a victory, some are cautious in their optimism. "Anything is good in the direction of not putting people in private prisons, which is another form of selling people's bodies, particularly Black and Brown people," stated Andrea James, a cofounder of Families for Justice as Healing and the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. But, she cautioned, the memo "doesn't say that they're not going to incarcerate them somewhere else." Having spent a year and a half in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, run by the federal BOP, James knows firsthand that government-run prisons come with their own set of abuses. There, she witnessed numerous examples of neglect and abuse ranging from the lack of soap in the prison's bathrooms to extremely inadequate medical care.
"We advocate for not replacing these prisons," James told Truthout. "We advocate instead for investing the money into the communities most impacted."
In the days ahead, exerting pressure for the US government to also end its use of private prison corporations to run its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers will likely be a major focus for opponents of private prisons.
Two years ago, in a much-less publicized deal, the Obama administration signed a four-year, $1 billion dollar contract with CCA to build two immigration detention facilities in Texas specifically for mothers and children seeking asylum from Central America. One, in Dilley, holds up to 2,400 asylum seekers; the other is a family detention center in Karnes City that can hold up to 532 women and children. The contract pays CCA a "fixed monthly fee for use of the entire facility regardless of the number of residents." CCA also operates 73 other immigrant detention facilities across the country.
James is still haunted by her visit three weeks earlier to the CCA-run Eloy Detention Center in Phoenix, which detains nearly 1,600 people. "There were men who had been brought from across the country because they couldn't prove citizenship," she said. She met wives and children of several of these men. "Some of them [the children] were 7 or 8 years old, the same age as my son," she said. She recalled one young boy who was in the car with his father when they were pulled over by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. When his father was unable to produce documents affirming his residency or citizenship, he was arrested. "He hasn't seen his father since then," James said. His family, lacking US passports, cannot visit him.
She reiterates that, knowing about abusive conditions inside privately run prisons, the federal government should also end its contracts for immigration detention. Continuing to do so, she charges, sends the message that some people, solely because of their immigration status, are "not worthy to come out of these abusive conditions."
At the same time, she refuses to let government-run jails and prisons off the hook. On that same trip to Phoenix, she participated in a rally outside Tent City, the notorious city-run outdoor jail. The sheriff has proudly compared Tent City to a concentration camp. "It was 112 degrees on the sidewalk," she remembered. "Inside the tents were 135 degrees." Tent City can hold up to 2,126 people -- the majority of them are awaiting trial.
James emphasizes that, regardless of the classification under which people are confined, "It's all the same thing. It's incarcerating people and separating them from their families."