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Legal Review: DOJ Announces End to Private Prison Contracts

by Matthew Crowley August 31, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

Legal Review PriceBenowitz

Virginia attorney Matthew Crowley focuses his efforts on defending individuals who are facing felonies, misdemeanors, as well as serious traffic offenses across Northern Virginia.

In a stunning move that has sent private prison stocks tumbling on Wall Street, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it will be phasing out the use of privately owned prisons. Thirteen contracts will be allowed to expire by 2021. With the news of the revised policy stance, Corrections Corp. of America stock plummeted 50 percent on the day of the announcement, signaling a new chapter in the era of mass incarceration by the United States’ prison industrial complex.

The decision by the feds will not affect individual states, but the move comes less than six months after Mayor Muriel Bowser made a similar announcement about the District’s reliance on private prisons. In March, Bowser said that the District would not renew its contract with CCA in January 2017. The District has been locked into a 20-year contract with CCA since 1997. However, once the contract expires five months, the Correctional Treatment Facility at 19th and D Streets, SE, will revert to Washington D.C. Department of Corrections administration.

With Thursday’s Department of Justice announcement, within five years, no prisoner sentenced in the District will be held in a private facility. That’s good news for families and friends of incarcerated men and women. One of the reasons for the DOJ policy change is an Inspector General’s report that found private prisons have a higher rate of violent incidents compared to government-run facilities. There was also more rule breaking in private prisons by staff and prisoners alike. While no prison is entirely safe, government institutions are typically run more effectively in terms of results and costs.

The move by the DOJ comes close to the end of President Barack Obama’s term; during a national push for criminal justice reforms; and on the heels of a hotly contested Democratic presidential primary race. During his campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders promised to end the “private, for-profit prison racket.” He sponsored a bill to terminate use of private prisons because the criminal justice system could not be fixed while corporations benefit from mass incarceration of citizens.

Private prisons house nearly 25,000 federal inmates across the country, or roughly 10 percent of the federal prison population. According to ACLU statistics, the percentage is lower for state inmates, at about 6%, but the total number of prisoners is higher since there are more state than federal inmates. The actual number could be as high as 125,000 or more state prisoners in private custody.

In addition to problems with frequent violence and rule infractions — on both the part of prisoners and staff at private prisons – found by the Justice Department, there is another downside to the corrections industry. Private prison conditions are often the target of multiple long-running legal dramas because of Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment lawsuits and other civil rights violations.

Among the many claims brought by prisoners against CCA and other private companies, health care concerns rank among the most frequent. In the privatization of prisons, cost cutting is a major concern for companies to increase the profit margin. Service cuts, including health care, often leave prisoners at risk. Even the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Richardson v. McKnight, a 1997 case focusing on private prisons, that private firms seek to maximize profits, which ultimately means minimizing costs.

Additionally, in the Richardson dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia touched on the issue of higher violence rates in private prisons vis-à-vis a cost issue. Therein, Scalia intimated that discipline may be down-played to reduce lawsuits by stating, “the more cautious the prison guards, the fewer the lawsuits, the higher the profits.” If guards do look the other way and do not impose strict disciplinary standards, then the prison becomes a breeding ground for chaos and violence.

Private prisons have no place in a society trying to combat decades of mass incarceration. A commercial facility built with the sole purpose of warehousing men, women, and in some cases, children, defeats every reform effort. At one time, warehouses were a sign of progress and productivity in America, a sign that something was being manufactured, marketed, and contributing to the economy. Perhaps private institutions, instead of being shuttered when the DOJ contracts expire, can be rehabilitated as institutions of America’s innovation and more positive first-nation attributes.

Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.

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