Politicians are making a big deal about a decision by the Department of Justice to end its use of private prisons. The DOJ cites a history of poor care standards for inmates and high recidivism as drivers for the move. But what might sound like a win for human rights might in fact be just a drop in the bucket.
While 13 private prisons will cease operation due to the DOJ move, the industry will continue to house most of the nation’s convicted illegal aliens, the population responsible for supporting these jails. The prisoners aren’t managed by the DOJ, so no matter what is said, government support for substandard conditions will continue.
Why use private prisons?
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet, so it’s no surprise the business of locking people up is a lucrative one. Prisons in the states fall into two categories:
- Those run by the government, which comprise the majority of facilities
- Private operations that house between 8 and 10 percent of the prison population
The private prison industry saw growth during the ‘90s as a cost-effective way for the government to house inmates doing time for immigration and mostly minor drug offenses. Today, the majority of private prison inmates are “criminal alien” males with less than 90 months remaining on their sentences.
Capitalism in the prison industry
In the private model, a prison receives a stipend from the government based on the number of inmates housed in a facility. The obvious danger of this model is the potential for the prison to function as a holding pen, rather than a rehabilitation facility. Finding ways to do things cheaper allows so-called ‘nonprofit’ private prisons to retain more of their stipend, meaning more cash for private operators.
The dynamic this creates is a vicious cycle that relies on a roughly 75 percent recidivism rate to fuel inmate housing operations where people can’t learn skills to improve their situations and suffer from a lower quality of life compared to inmates in federal facilities.
Scrutiny of the laws that landed many of these inmates in prison is one motivator for the change. But the fact is that the majority of private prison inmates aren’t under the Department of Justice’s purview. Only just over 22,000 inmates reside in the 13 facilities that will close under the DOJ’s decision, which means that the private prison industry will continue to deliver substandard care to hundreds of thousands of inmates.
Others must follow suit
If the government really wants to achieve better standards of care for all those doing time, the departments with control of the immigrant populations keeping private prisons afloat must also cease their use of these facilities, specifically the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As of 2015, just over 60 percent of detention beds for convicted immigrants were outsourced to private operations, comprising over 250 facilities spread out across the nation. With nearly 400,000 inmates a year detained by Homeland Security, the withdrawal of 22,000 from the DOJ will do little to right the current situation.
The question is whether the government is interested in making an impact that is more than just symbolic.
Image via: Pexels