DOJ memo: phase out privately-operated prisons

Last week, the Department of Justice announced it would be seeking to reduce and eventually end the practice of using privately operated prisons.  In a memo to the Bureau of Federal Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates explains that about a decade ago, the Bureau began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to handle a fast increasing federal prison population. Now, however, the prison population has started to decline.

“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” said Yates. “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 lnspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

“For all these reasons, l am eager to enlist your help in beginning the process of reducing-and ultimately ending-our use of privately operated prisons.”

While DOJ’s actions will likely decrease the number of prisoners held in these facilities over time, a majority of inmates in privately operated prisons are under state, not federal, jurisdiction. In addition, only about 8 percent of total inmates are held in private facilities. When looking at all prisoners (private and public prisons), most inmates are in state facilities: 87 percent of prisoners in 2014 were under state correctional authority.

According to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2014 there were 131,261 inmates held in private prisons under both state and federal authority. More than two-thirds of those inmates (91,244) were in facilities under state jurisdiction only.  

In 2014, thirty states reported that they held at least some of their prison population in private facilities. Five of those states – Alaska, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and South Dakota – reported 30 private prisoners or less. Only three states – Montana, New Mexico and Oklahoma – have more than a quarter of their inmates under private administration.