Today, the United States Department of Justice announced it would stop using privately operated prisons for federal prisoners. The department’s Office of the Inspector General had recently concluded that private facilities are less safe and effective than those run by the Bureau of Prisons. While this decision could improve rights protections for countless people now and in the future, it still leaves many in federal custody at added risk of mistreatment.
The decision does not close all federal detention facilities run by private companies. The US immigration detention system, which detains hundreds of thousands of non-citizens each year, is run by the Department of Homeland Security and is not affected by today’s decision. Nine of the 10 largest immigration detention facilities are privately operated; approximately 60 percent of detainees are housed in private facilities. A recent Human Rights Watch analysis documented several cases of detainees who died in private facilities after receiving substandard medical care. Others have documented persistent violations of detention standards in private centers, including those holding women and children.
It is also important not to overestimate the role of the private prison industry. The vast majority of incarcerated people in the US are held in government-run facilities. Only 22,660 of the 188,000 federal prisoners and just 7 percent of the over 1.3 million state prisoners are held in private prisons. In the juvenile justice realm, more juveniles are held in public facilities even though there are more privately operated juvenile facilities.
Serious abuses also occur in government-run facilities in the US. Dangerous lapses in medical care for immigration detainees have occurred in public facilities and in private facilities where medical care was provided by public health officers. Human Rights Watch has also documented inappropriate and abusive use of force against people with mental disabilities in jails and prisons, and the devastating impact of solitary confinement on youth.
Whether the facility is publicly or privately operated, the government is responsible for protecting inmates against abuses and holding officials or agents of the government accountable when violations occur. In its decision to stop using private prisons, the Justice Department essentially admitted it could not adequately monitor and ensure the safety of prisoners in private facilities. This move should prompt other federal departments and state governments to examine their contracts with private prison companies and renew efforts to protect the constitutional and human rights of all people in their custody, and to do so without relegating the main event, publicly operated facilities, to a sideshow.