In an historic rebuke of the private prison industry, the Department of Justice today announced plans to eliminate the use of private prisons to incarcerate federal inmates. The announcement follows the release of a critical inspector general’s report and an investigative series published in The Nation, in partnership with the Investigative Fund and Reveal News. We uncovered more than two dozen questionable deaths and widespread medical negligence in the federal facilities that will now begin a process of closure.
“I am directing that as each contract reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to renew or substantially reduce its scope,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a memo today to Bureau of Prisons Acting Director Thomas R. Kane. The new directive means that by May of 2017, when many of the existing federal contracts are already set to end, the total number of inmates in contract prisons will drop to 14,200, down from 22,000 now and a high of nearly 30,000 in 2013. Within five years, every current federal-prison contract will have reached the end of its term.
The Department of Justice inspector general report, released last week, found private prisons are dramatically less safe, less secure, and more costly than the BOP’s own prisons. The private facilities, Yates wrote, “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources” and “do not save substantially on costs,”
The report bolstered the findings of a June investigation in The Nation, which reviewed 20,000 pages of previously undisclosed agency monitoring reports and discovered that the BOP’s system of oversight has failed to effectively correct serious, repeat deficiencies, including medical mismanagement and negligence so severe that some clinics didn’t have a single doctor on staff.
In the immediate wake of the deputy attorney general’s announcement, the stock prices of the two largest prison contractors—Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group—plummeted, with CCA’s stock losing more than half its value by midday.
While state-level private prisons have received notable media scrutiny, the federal government’s facilities have operated largely out of sight. Inmates and their advocates have long complained about poor medical care, complaints that have erupted into riots in more than one facility in recent years. Our investigation was the first to substantiate inmates’ complaints.
Our first story, published in January, uncovered dozens of deaths that involved substandard medical care in the prisons. Based on thousands of pages of medical records obtained through an open-records lawsuit, the investigation found that private contractors consistently failed to provide baseline levels of care to patients sick with cancer, mental illness and AIDS and other infectious diseases. The prison medical units were gravely understaffed and relied on licensed practical nurses to do provide front-line care that far outstripped their training. In some facilities, clinics operated without medical doctors. Prisoners who complained of illness went months at a time without seeing a medical doctor, their health declining until their premature death.