(AUSTIN, Texas) — Today the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will instruct the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to phase out private prison contracts with the eventual goal of eliminating their use in the federal prison system.
The BOP will amend an existing solicitation for a prison contracts that was originally for 10,800 beds to no more than 3,600 beds. By May 2017 the total BOP private prison population will be less than 14,200 — a 50 percent reduction from its high in 2013. As contracts come up for renewal over the next five years, the DOJ recommends that the BOP should work to reduce and eliminate more private prison facilities.
DOJ officials announced that the federal prison population has dropped from a peak of approximately 220,000 prisoners in 2013 to 195,000 federal prisoners today, reducing the need for contract prison space. To further reduce the federal prison population, the DOJ should deprioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions, which make up nearly half of all federal prosecutions nationwide for what amount to status offenses for immigrants crossing the border.
The announcement raises serious questions about the viability of private prison companies given their huge stake in federal prisons for immigrants. A news source for investors said CCA and GEO “crumble” after the announcement, with both companies’ stock down more than 40 percent.
“Today is an historic day,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “The DOJ’s decision to phase out its use of troubled for-profit private prisons may be a turning point for an industry that has continued to win federal contracts despite well-documented operational problems.”
Most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. CAR prisons hold noncitizens, many of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border. This announcement will likely mark the end of segregated federal prisons for non-citizens, though it remains to be seen how the BOP will carry out this change.
Many of the immigrants incarcerated in CAR prisons are sentenced for one of two federal charges: misdemeanor improper entry or felony improper re-entry. The book, Indefensible: A Decade of Mass Incarceration of Migrants Prosecuted for Crossing the Border, released by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies last month, revealed that these two charges account for half of all federal prosecutions although they are merely status offenses for crossing the border without proper documentation, and do not fall under DOJ priorities.
“This decision will take the profit motive out of the BOP’s incarceration of non-citizens prosecuted for crossing the border,” said Bethany Carson, researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “We hope that this decision will be a stepping stone for the DOJ to end the use of segregated prisons for non-citizens and de-prioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions.”
Unfortunately, this announcement will not affect the vast system of immigrant detention centers operated by private prison companies for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including two large family detention camps in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas.
According to a report released by Grassroots Leadership last year, private prisons increased their share of the immigrant detention industry after the implementation of a quota that guaranteed 34,000 immigrants would be detained at any given time. Private prison corporations now operate two thirds of ICE detention centers. CCA and GEO alone operate nine out of ten of the largest detention centers.
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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education.