DOJ Backtracks on Private Prison Phaseout

Several months back, I reported on the DOJ’s decision to begin a phase-out of the use of private prisons in the federal justice system, which was very welcome news given the horrible, inept treatment of prisoners by private providers in violation of those prisoner’s constitutional rights. Fast forward to the post-election present, and it looks like the promise of a private prison phaseout is in serious jeopardy, as the DOJ appears to have backtracked on its phaseout plans and our new President-elect has signalled his support for further privatization of prisons.

Despite the August Memo, Two Private Prison Contracts Are Renewed

In her August 2016 memo to the Acting Director for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote that private prisons “compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities” and that, “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and, as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General, they do not provide the same level of safety and security.”

On the basis of this unequivocally damning assessment – which has been echoed by substantial media reports including an in-depth undercover investigation earlier this year by Mother Jones – Yates directed the Bureau to either decline to renew private prison contract renewals or substantially reduce their scope.

In late November, however, it was reported that the Bureau did in fact renew its contract with the privately-run McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia, with only an 8% reduction in number of inmate beds. Two weeks prior to that, the GEO Group, which runs the D. Ray James Correctional Facility (also in Georgia) announced that it too had renewed its contract with the Bureau. The Department of Justice does not appear to have provided any comment regarding the seeming discrepancy between the August memo and the two contract renewals.

Our Fight for Prison Reform Going Forward

President-elect Trump has expressed his support for privately-run prisons and privatization in general on the campaign trail, and the private prison industry has expressed even more fervent support for him. In the days after the August Yates memo was released, a subsidiary of the GEO Group made a $100,000 donation to a pro-Trump PAC, several weeks after the GEO Group made a separate $50,000 donation. Furthermore, the stocks of privately-prison corporations have soared on Trump’s election.

The fact that prison has become a for-profit venture that investors can make millions on should be deeply troubling for all Americans, but for in the criminal defense community, this is just one of many wake-up calls presented by the coming Trump presidency. Trump called himself the “law and order” candidate without providing specifics as to what that meant, but his support for an industry that has routinely ignored the constitutional rights of federal prisoners while paying little attention to the need for rehabilitative and educational services for our inmate population is a strong indicator that, unlike his predecessor President Obama who was the first sitting president to visit inmates in prison in a push for prison reform, Trump will not be placing a high priority on the rights of criminal defendants and inmates.

Without an ally in the White House in the fight for reform of our prison system, we in the criminal defense bar face an even greater challenge in representing the rights of clients who might face injustice inside our nation’s prison walls.

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