The Justice Department plans to phase out the use of private prisons over the next several years, though the time it takes will depend on whether the population of federal prisoners continues to decline. From the Washington Post:

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope. The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.”

“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,” Yates wrote.

The Deputy AG’s memo says the Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private prisons because of an 800% increase in the inmate population between 1980 and 2013. However, the federal prison population has declined from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 now. In 2013 about 15% of federal prisoners were being housed in private prisons so the idea is that, as the population drops further, they will no longer be necessary.

The announcement follows the publication this month of a report by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General which found private prisons were comparatively less safe for prisoners and guards. From the OIG report:

We found that in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions…For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones 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 following chart from the OIG report shows the difference in inmate-on-inmate assaults found by investigators:

figure 5

The OIG report does note that the private prisons had lower per capita incidents of positive drug tests and sexual assault. And the Post reports there is some resistance to the conclusion of the OIG report:

Scott Marquardt, president of Management and Training Corporation, wrote that comparing Bureau of Prisons facilities to privately operated ones was “comparing apples and oranges.” He generally disputed the inspector general’s report.

“Any casual reader would come to the conclusion that contract prisons are not as safe as BOP prisons,” Marquardt wrote. “The conclusion is wrong and is not supported by the work done by the [Office of the Inspector General].”

The DOJ will not cancel existing contracts with private prisons but expects not to renew them as they expire (again, assuming the prison population continues to decline). All of the current contracts are up for renewal in the next five years.