Good News: federal private prisons to be phased out
Another bit of good news; actually it's pretty tepid good news for reasons which will become clear. It's something you may have heard about but to understand both why it's good and why it's really not so much takes a bit of background.
One of the issues that has sort of percolated in the background and that even bubbled up a bit during the primaries is that of mass incarceration in the US, the fact that we imprison a greater part of our population than any other nation. And I note here once for all that in this case I am not going to get into the racial and racist aspects of the move to mass imprisonment. For now, I'm just going to be dealing with the numbers.
With just 5 percent of the world's population, the US holds 25 percent of its inmates. Between local, state, and federal jails and prisons, there are over 2.3 million people in cages in the US, many of them for nonviolent offenses and many of those in local jails are people who have not been convicted of anything and are "guilty" only of being too poor to make bail.
We imprison more men, more women, and more children than any other nation on the planet.
During the "get tough on crime" days of the 1980s and '90s, the rate of incarceration in the US more than tripled: Between 1980 and 2010, the prison population went from 220 per 100,000 people to 731 per 100,000, with the rate continuing to rise even as crime rates declined, as they have since the early 1990s. Much of that increase was driven by the so-called "war on drugs," which Nixon-aid John Ehrlichman admitted was actually started as a war on the antiwar left and the black community, but that is, again, a discussion for another time.
That explosion in the prison population lead to an explosion of something else: private, profit-oriented prisons, making contracts with state and federal agencies to build and staff prisons at, they swore, lower cost per prisoner because of course private profit is going to do a better job than any government agency could, another idea running rampant in the period.
By the end of 2015, roughly 12 percent of the federal inmate population, about 22,000 prisoners, was being housed in these private facilities, run by just just three different contractors who had received a total of $639 million in federal contracts.
There have been questions about using profit-based prisons all along, with various prison-reform and civil rights groups calling for an end to them, a position which got more attention when during the primaries Bernie Sanders made enough noise about abolishing them that he embarrassed Hillary Clinton into saying first that she would no longer accept campaign donations from private prison lobbyists and then later that, quoting her, "we should end private prisons and private detention centers."
The good news here is that we have taken one small step in that direction.
In a blistering report earlier this month, the Department of Justice's inspector general states that the Bureau of Prisons has failed in its core mission to incarcerate individuals in facilities "that are safe, humane, cost-efficient and secure."
In its wake, department officials have concluded that, in the words of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the private, profit-making facilities "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and they do not maintain the same level of safety and security" as compared to those run by the government.
In fact, assaults by inmates on other inmates, by inmates on staff, and by staff on inmates were all significantly higher in the private prisons than in the government-run ones.
So the DOJ has announced that department officials are either to decline to renew or "substantially reduce" the contracts for private prison operators when they expire. The goal, according to Yates, is "reducing - and ultimately ending - our use of privately operated prisons."
The problems at private facilities were hardly a secret, and Yates said officials had been talking for months about discontinuing their use. But until now, the DOJ had failed to act.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, called the move "a huge deal," both "historic and groundbreaking" because it is "a startling and major reversal" of the trend over the last 35 years toward more and more private prisons. It is a move, he said, "we hope will be followed by others."
But it's the reference to "others" that reveals why this is just tepid good news: Only a small portion of the people in prison in the US are in the federal prison system, which is the only one affected by the newly-issued order. Most inmates are in state prisons, and those prisons are unaffected by the new policy and so private prisons in those states continue to operate with those states' blessings - often at the behest of and to the benefit of lobbyists carrying campaign donations in their bags.
Still, experts said the new DOJ directive is significant and the hope is that once the dam of resistance to the end of prison-for-profit is broken, more such significant moves on other levels of the criminal justice system will follow.
It could be - and has been - noted that this actually does nothing, at least directly, about mass incarceration. But if we can do away with or at the least sharply limit the notion of prisons as a profit center for corporations looking to cut costs to increase profits, and we can decide as a people that if we want to confine people in cages as a punishment then we should be prepared to bear the cost of doing it and so start making a cost-benefit analysis of imprisonment, we will quickly realize both that in the vast majority of cases prison is not the best answer and that our "war on drugs" which has sparked much of the increase in the prison population has been a total failure - and so, it is to be hoped, we can start making better decisions about matters of crime and punishment.
And that possibility surely is good news.
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