Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed Justice Department officials on Aug. 18 to phase out federal use of private prisons. (J. David Ake/Associated Press)

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it was directing the Bureau of Prisons to stop using private contractors to run federal prisons, phasing them out as contracts expire over the next five years.

Federal private prisons are a small part of the prison-industrial complex, because most private prisons are at the state and local level. But the Justice Department’s announcement may mark the beginning of the end of what has been a miserable failure of privatization. The stock prices of the two leading private prison companies — the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group — cratered on the news.

Privatizing the incarceration of people was always a ridiculous idea. If companies are going to make money out of jailing people — by competing to offer lower prices — the competition can only be perverse. They’ll push to increase the number of inmates in a facility, decrease the services provided them, pile on fees to charge them or their families and decrease the number or training or quality of guards, medical staff and others. Overcrowding, rotten food and bad medical services become profitable “efficiencies” until violence breaks out.

The Justice Department’s announcement is a tribute to independent journalism. Three years ago, Seth Freed Wessler heard reports about people dying needlessly in the federal government’s private prisons. Private prisons proliferated in the mid-1990s after the decision to criminalize border crossings inflated the federal inmate population. Private companies offered to expand prisons quickly and cheaply. Government officials were happy to cut a deal.

With the support of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, Wessler spent years digging. He filed open-records lawsuits, interviewed former prison guards, tracked down whistleblowers in the Bureau of Prisons and talked to the families of former inmates.

His series of investigative articles, published (I’m proud to report) in the Nation magazine — (in a partnership with Reveal News; and a separate article in Mother Jones by Shane Bauer on a Louisiana facility) — blew the lid off the reality. Literally dozens of inmates were dying unnecessarily in federal private prisons. This month, an Inspector’s General report confirmed Wessler’s revelations, finding private prisons significantly less safe, less secure and more costly than the Bureau of Prisons’ public prisons. The private facilities, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote, “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources” and “do not save substantially on costs.”

Wessler wasn’t “telling truth to power,” as the old adage goes. Here, as is all too often the case, those in power already knew the truth. The government’s own watchdogs had sounded the alarm about private prisons for years. But year after year the contracts were renewed. And top Bureau of Prisons officials have become executives and board members of the two leading private prison companies, cashing in even as inmates were dying because of inadequate health care. When the articles were published, the officials may have been embarrassed but not shocked.

What Wessler and the Nation did was reveal the truth to the people. The story came out just as the Black Lives Matter movement had put the injustice and racism of our criminal justice system at the top of the national agenda. The combination gave more conscientious executive branch officials the traction to take on the companies and their lobbies and issue the directive.

This is but a small step toward reform. Only about 22,100 inmates are held in privately run federal prisons. Most of these are either immigrants detained for crossing the border illegally or those arrested for federal drug crimes. And the prison-industrial complex remains a multi-billion dollar behemoth armed with lobbyists from both sides of the aisle. But the Black Lives Matter movement continues to push for reforms. Mass incarceration in the United States has become a global embarrassment. Hillary Clinton has pledged to phase out all private prisons. The companies involved will mobilize to defend their contracts. What this victory shows is that, despite the corruption of our politics, reform is still possible, citizen movements and independent journalism still matter and decent officials can make a difference.

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