Why have private prisons at all?

That is the question to ask in the wake of a new U.S. Department of Justice report that has revealed elevated safety and security incidents at privatized federal prisons. The 80-page report by the DOJ’s inspector general confirms what has long been suspected: Private prisons are often less safe than publicly operated prisons.

The private prison industry has expanded exponentially in the past quarter-century. The number of inmates in private prisons increased by roughly 1,600 percent between 1990 and 2009. Today, some 130,000 men and women live in for-profit prisons in the United States — and that number doesn’t include those locked up in private local jails and immigration prisons. As incarceration skyrocketed due to the war on drugs, three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, the private prison industry reaped lucrative rewards. The more people for-profit prisons lock away, the more money they make.

OPINION

From a human rights standpoint, privatized incarceration presents a serious threat. A private prison in Idaho was dubbed the “Gladiator School” due to extreme levels of violence. A private juvenile prison in Mississippi was once described by a federal judge as “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

Some of the safety concerns at private prisons may reflect the higher rate of staff turnover, which can result in inexperienced guards walking the tiers. After an infamous escape from an Arizona private prison in 2010, for example, the Arizona Department of Corrections reported that at the prison, staff were “green,” not proficient with weapons and had a rather dangerous habit: ignoring sounding alarms.

While the for-profit prison industry claims that governments can save money through privatization, private prisons often fail to deliver demonstrable fiscal benefits and can even cost taxpayers more than publicly operated institutions. Numerous studies by researchers, state governments and federal agencies contradict the supposed economic benefits touted by industry supporters.

Although Illinois bans private prisons, the sheer scale of the industry and the masses of people locked up in private prisons make it unrealistic to think that these institutions will vanish from the national scene anytime soon. But there is much that can be done to curtail prison privatization—including the enactment of federal legislation banning new private prison construction across the country. With new evidence of private prison dysfunction coming from the Justice Department report, there is no time like the present to enact this important reform.

The DOJ inspector general’s report recommended improved monitoring and oversight of federal contract prisons. That’s the least DOJ should do. The more appropriate response would be to phase out private prisons and limit incarceration to publicly operated jails and prisons directly accountable to local, state and federal elected leaders.

David M. Shapiro is director of appellate litigation at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law where he is a clinical assistant professor of law.

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