Justice Department Announces It Will Begin Phasing Out Private Prisons In the United States

Cimarron Correction Facility, a private prison run by CCA in Oklahoma. Four inmates were stabbed to death there in a September 2015 riot. Photo via AP.
Cimarron Correction Facility, a private prison run by CCA in Oklahoma. Four inmates were stabbed to death there in a September 2015 riot. Photo via AP.

The Justice Department is planning to end the use of private prisons in the United States, the Washington Post reports. The government has concluded that prisons run by private corporations are “both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services” than prisons run by the feds, the paper says.


Private prisons only house about 12 percent of the total prison population in the U.S., or roughly 22,000 federal inmates. They’re mainly owned by two companies, the Corrections Corporation of America, based in Tennessee, and the GEO Group, based in Florida.

But as the Post notes, while they house far fewer prisoners than public prisons, they have higher rates of assaults, both the officer-on-inmate kind as well as inmate-on-inmate, and higher rates of contraband. (Strangely, however, they have slightly lower rates of sexual misconduct and positive drug tests than governmentally-run prisons.)

All that is according to a dry but scathing report recently put out by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, which looked at how the federal Bureau of Prisons is doing at monitoring private prisons. Among other things, the report found that several private prisons were improperly putting people in the SHU (solitary confinement), not because they’d committed any infractions but because the facilities were overcrowded:

Our site visits also revealed that two of the three contract prisons we visited were improperly housing new inmates in Special Housing Units (SHU), which are normally used for disciplinary or administrative segregation, until beds became available in general population housing. These new inmates had not engaged in any of the behaviors cited in American Correctional Association standards and BOP policies that would justify being placed in such administrative or disciplinary segregation.

When the OIG discovered this practice during the course of our fieldwork, we brought it to the attention of the BOP Director, who immediately directed that these inmates be removed from the SHUs and returned to the general population. The BOP Director also mandated that the contracts for all contract prisons be modified to prohibit SHU placement for inmates unless there is a policy-based reason to house them there.

That is, bluntly, a potential human rights violation.

The other recent embarrassment for the private prisons industry was Shane Bauer’s massive investigation piece in Mother Jones, where he went undercover as a corrections officer at a prison owned by CCA. The violence, ineptitude, corruption, drugs and general chaos Bauer found may have had something to do with the Justice Department’s new interest in the private prison industry.


According to the Post, the Justice Department’s Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed the Bureau of Prisons in a memo to phase out the use of private prisons over the next five years, when all 13 privately-run facilities have contracts that will come up for renewal. The goal, Yates told the BOP is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.”


As the news broke, stocks immediately tumbled for both CCA and the GEO Group, which is good, because the private prison industry is a disgrace and an embarrassment.


For more on America’s completely broken carceral system, you can look literally anywhere, since we imprison more people than anywhere else on earth, and abolishing private prisons doesn’t in any way solve that issue. Ease yourself in by starting with John Oliver and some puppets.

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.



Some public goods should not be run for a profit. Prisons are one of those things. Some would argue that healthcare is also one of those things, but I digress.