Important Victory In The Fight Against Private Prisons

Isaiah J. Poole

People fighting the private prison industry scored a huge victory Thursday when the Justice Department issued a memo announcing that it would begin the process of “reducing – and ultimately ending – our use of privately operated prisons.”

That memo was written by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and was directed to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Thomas R. Kane. It contains a direct takedown of some key right-wing justifications for privatizing what should be exclusively a public function.

“…[T]ime has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” the memo said. “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 Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security. The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource – and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”

Earlier this year Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Keith Ellison introduced “Justice is Not for Sale” bills in the Senate and the House to ban federal contracts with private prisons. At the time the bills were introduced, Sanders issued a statement that pointed out that “perverse profit incentives” encourage a system of mass incarceration that has the United States imprisoning more of its citizens – disproportionately people of color – than any other major country.

“The handful of corporations that provide correctional services profit tremendously from mass incarceration, and have lobbied through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for more draconian criminal laws that have the effect of increasing the incarcerated population,” Sanders said in the statement. “The private prison industry has joined the ranks of most aggressive lobbyists, and the two largest companies have spent $25 million on their efforts.”

A petition in support of the Justice is Not For Sale Act attracted more than 71,000 citizen co-sponsors. While the legislation is stalled in Congress in spite of this public support, the recently adopted Democratic Party platform does include a call to “close private prisons and detention centers.”

The Justice Department memo does not amount to the outright ban within two years that was sought by the legislation, and it does not affect the use of private prisons by state and local governments. Neither does it address the scourge of private Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons. Nonetheless, the Progressive Congress Action Fund called the Justice Department memo “a huge victory for progressives across the country who have been fighting to end for-profit prison complexes that put profits over human lives.”

This lays the foundation for what should be the eventual quick death of an industry that has a vested interest in perpetuating mass incarceration.

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