By Christopher Zoukis
This past August was a very rough month for privately-owned and operated prisons, at the hands of the Department of Justice. First, on Aug. 11, the DOJ inspector general’s office issued an 86-page report unfavorably comparing the performance of private prisons – looking over a four-year span at eight problem factors, including incidence of violence, amount of contraband found, and grievances, among others — to a comparable group of federal prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The report concluded private-run penal facilities fail to deliver the “same level of correctional services,” and do not offer significant savings to the government.
A week later, deputy attorney general Sally Yates sent out a memorandum announcing DOJ’s intention to begin reducing, and ultimately ending, use of private prisons. DOJ’s second-ranking official said use of private prisons would phased out over a five-year period, and directed BOP officials to refuse to renew contracts with private prisons, or at least downsize their use. BOP has already ended its contract with one former federal prison in New Mexico. That prison is not vacant, however, since the company that owns it subsequently contracted with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is now using it as an immigrant detention center.
Yet despite DOJ’s strongly expressed desire for BOP to cease doing business with the 13 private prisons now under contract to house slightly over 22,600 inmates (approximately 12 percent of the 195,000 or so in BOP custody), the agency has recently extended its contracts with private prison companies.
Late in September, the Boca Raton, Florida-based private prison operator The Geo Group announced it had agreed with the BOP to extend their contract at the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in Folkston, Georgia by two more years. That facility, which has custody of 1,900 federal inmates, was one of the three private prisons the report by the DOJ inspector general’s office identified as having the most problematic incidents on a per capita basis. The BOP says the extended contract will run through September 2018. The agency says the new contract will cut BOP’s costs there by $4.2 million.
Similarly, on Nov. 15, the Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, announced BOP had exercised its option to renew its lease at the 1,978-bed McRae Correctional Facility in McRae, Georgia, as of Dec. 1. The company says the new contract for the facility in central Georgia’s Telfair County calls for the company to make space available for up to 1,724 federal prisoners, and commits BOP to make fixed payments for 1,633 inmates every month, compared to fixed payments for 1,780 inmates under the expiring contract. The DOJ report had criticized BOP for committing to contracts guaranteeing fixed payments based on unnecessarily high numbers of inmates.
When DOJ first announced its plans to phase out contracts with private prisons, the mayor of McRae warned that eliminating 350 or so jobs could devastate the economy of his small community, since it would chop about $1 million from the area’s tax base, about a quarter of the local governments’ combined budgets.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com