The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Private federal prisons — less safe, less secure

Law enforcement officials from a wide variety of agencies converge on the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Tex., on Feb. 20, 2015, in response to a prisoner uprising at the private immigration detention center. (David Pike/Valley Morning Star via AP)

Private prisons — unsafe and insecure.

That’s the picture emerging from a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General’s report that adds to a growing effort to take the profit out of penitentiaries.

The report’s central conclusion: “We found that, in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP (Bureau of Prisons) institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.”

Those key areas are contraband, incident reports, lockdowns, inmate discipline, telephone monitoring, grievances, drug testing and sexual misconduct.

“With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined,” the OIG said. “For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cellphones annually on average as the BOP institutions.  Contract prisons also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”

The private facilities held 12 percent of BOP’s prison population in December, almost 22,700 low-security immigrant adult males with 90 months or less on their sentences. Three companies have the contracts — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc. and Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

In their responses included in the report, each of the three cited their largely homogeneous inmates as a significant factor in prison misconduct. “Our experience has been that the criminal alien population housed in contract prisons has a higher rate” of inmates who pose a security threat, said CCA, the nation’s oldest and largest private prison company. GEO said the “criminal alien” population “responds as one to any issue, real or perceived.”

MTC rejected the report’s findings: “Any casual reader would come to the conclusion that contract prisons are not as safe as BOP prisons. The conclusion is wrong and is not supported by the work done by the OIG.”

Like any business, private prison companies are in business to make money. That can lead to cost-cutting and under-staffing that promotes dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

“In recent years, disturbances in several contract prisons resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury, and even the death of a correctional officer,” said Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. “Last year, we audited one of these contract prisons and found that it was regularly understaffed in crucial areas, including correctional officers and health services workers.”

Many inmates, nearly half in some places and largely Mexican, are serving time for immigration offenses. “This is due to a new trend in the past decade of criminally prosecuting people for reentering the country rather than merely processing them through the civil deportation system,” said Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project. “The result is that people serve sometimes-lengthy prison sentences in BOP custody before … going through civil deportation proceedings.”

In an article on the Marshall Project website, Takei said BOP private prison contracts contribute to poor conditions. The agency exempts “the companies from complying with most bureau policies, creating financial incentives to overcrowd the facilities up to 115 percent of the originally contracted capacity, and setting perverse incentives to overuse solitary cells,” he wrote. “For the last decade, the contracts have had a quota requiring at least 10 percent of the prison to be devoted to isolated confinement, which is nearly double the percentage of prisoners kept in isolated confinement at facilities managed by the Bureau of Prisons.”

Asked about those points, BOP did not respond.

Like the private companies, BOP’s response to the report cautioned against comparing the private prison populations with those in federal facilities. Nonetheless, the agency agreed to the report’s four recommendations, including increased verification “that inmates receive basic medical services such as initial medical exams and immunizations” and “periodic validation of actual Correctional Officer staffing levels.”

But no remedial action will remedy the basic conflict the profit motive provides when corporations are involved in decisions that directly affect the incarceration of individuals. Do private companies save money through understaffing? Do private companies have a profit motive to shortchange prison infirmaries? Do private companies have a financial interest in keeping prisoners incarcerated? There’s no suggestion that government-run facilities are free of problems. But at least making money isn’t the motivation.

Political activists, religious groups and organizations like ACLU have long pushed for an end to private prisons. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also has joined the call with this statement on her website: “We must not create private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration.”

Read more:

[Are prison employees behind “the persistent problem of contraband smuggling" in federal prisons?]

[Report finds federal prisons held 152 inmates too long, one by almost three years]

[Too many inmates, too few correctional officers: A lethal recipe in federal prisons]