U.S. Department of Justice Finds Fault with Privatized Federal Prisons

U.S. Department of Justice Finds Fault with Privatized Federal Prisons

Privately-operated federal prisons, also known as contract prisons, have more violence, use-of-force incidents, and contraband seizures than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), among other findings in an August 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The 86-page report examined data from 14 private prisons that contract with the BOP; those CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) facilities hold around 27,000 non-citizen federal prisoners who are subject to deportation after completing their prison terms. The data collected was compared to 14 BOP institutions with similar demographics.

The OIG also visited three of the private prisons – the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility and Eden Detention Center in Texas and the Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina. All had been cited by the BOP for more than one safety and security problem, though “[n]one of the three prisons lost its ACA accreditation because of these security-related deficiencies,” the report stated.

The facilities examined by the OIG were operated by a trio of for-profit companies: GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and Management & Training Corp. (MTC). The BOP paid the companies $639 million to run all 14 contract prisons in fiscal year 2014.

Although the privately-operated facilities hold “primarily low security, criminal alien adult males with 90 months or less remaining to serve on their sentences,” the OIG’s scathing report found they were more dangerous and less secure than BOP-managed institutions. The report noted that “[c]ontract prisons had more frequent incidents per capita of contraband finds, assaults, uses of force, lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, and selected categories of grievances.”

Experts familiar with the poor track record of privatized prisons were not surprised by the results of the OIG’s investigation.

“This is the latest in a whole series of reports and investigations that have found very serious issues with Bureau of Prisons’ shadow systems of private prisons,” said Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project and co-author of a 2014 report, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System.”

The OIG report evaluated data collected from fiscal years 2011 through 2014 in eight categories: 1) contraband, 2) incident reports, 3) lockdowns, 4) prisoner discipline, 5) phone monitoring, 6) selected grievances, 7) urinalysis drug testing and 8) 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 stated.

For example, “[t]he contract prisons had more frequent incidents per capita for three of the four types of contraband we analyzed: cell phones, tobacco, and weapons. Also, we examined 10 types of reports of incidents and found that the contract prisons had higher rates of assaults and uses of force. In addition, the contract prisons had more lockdowns, more guilty findings on serious inmate discipline charges, and more grievances submitted by inmates in selected categories. Finally, although the contract prisons are not subject to a minimum requirement for monitoring inmate phone calls, we found that they monitored a lower percentage.”

The report specifically found that prisoner-on-prisoner assaults were 28% higher in contract prisons, contraband cell phones were confiscated eight times more frequently, institutional lockdowns were nine times more likely to occur, and private prison officials were improperly using solitary confinement to house prisoners who had not committed disciplinary infractions due to a lack of bed space in the general population. The OIG also noted there have been five major disturbances at contract prisons since December 2008 and cited understaffing as a contributing problem.

Further, the report found that “the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.” At the time of the review, the BOP attempted to ensure the proper provision of healthcare services at contract prisons with a seven-part checklist.

The OIG found, however, that “none of the seven health services checklist observation steps, individually or when considered together, examined whether the contractors were providing basic medical care to the inmates.” As a result, “the BOP cannot as effectively ensure that contract prisons comply with contract requirements and BOP policies in these areas and that inmates in contract prisons receive appropriate health and correctional services.”

The report illustrated the failure of the BOP’s health care monitoring by noting that one of the privately-operated facilities, which was supposedly in compliance with the checklist, did not have a full-time physician for eight months or a dentist for six weeks. BOP policy requires the presence of a full-time doctor and dentist at all facilities at all times.

Although the BOP had onsite monitors at the contract prisons and was responsible for monitoring the facilities’ contractual performance, that did not prevent the deficiencies cited in the OIG report.

With respect to cost comparisons, the OIG wrote, “Because the BOP does not receive the breakdown of cost information under the fixed-price prison contracts, we were not able to analyze and compare costs incurred by function or department between the contract prisons and BOP institutions as part of this review. Moreover, we were unable to compare the overall costs of incarceration between BOP institutions and contract prisons in part because of the different nature of the inmate populations and programs offered in those facilities. The BOP does calculate the overall per capita annual and daily costs for housing its inmates in both BOP institutions and contract prisons. However, because of the factors discussed above, we do not draw, and caution against drawing the conclusion from that data … that contract prisons are necessarily lower cost than BOP institutions on an overall basis.”

The OIG made four recommendations to address the problems it had identified at the privately-operated facilities. First, convene a group of BOP experts “to evaluate why contract prisons had more safety and security incidents per capita than BOP institutions in a number of key indicators, and identify appropriate action, if necessary.” Second, verify that prisoners are receiving basic medical care. Third, ensure that the BOP’s contract monitoring process addresses “vital functions related to the contract,” including validation of staffing levels; and fourth, reevaluate the monitoring process on a regular basis to ensure it is adequate for contract compliance oversight.

Officials from CCA, GEO Group, and MTC blamed the unique demographic of the populations at BOP contract prisons for the shortcomings described in the report – in effect, blaming the prisoners for the operational deficiencies identified by the OIG.

One CCA official wrote that the “criminal alien population housed in contract facilities” had more gang members who were “significantly more likely to be involved in violence and misconduct,” ignoring the fact that the private prisons housed low and minimum-security prisoners serving relatively short sentences, and that gang members are present in BOP-run prisons, too.

Given the perverse economic incentives that contract facilities have to cut costs in order to generate profit, it is highly unlikely that the failures documented by the OIG resulted solely or primarily from the nature of the prisoner population.

Regardless of the reasons for the deficiencies cited in the OIG’s report, the report made it clear there are serious problems at privately-operated federal prisons. The ACLU’s Carl Takei said it was time for the BOP to move away from the use of for-profit facilities.

“Federal officials should be reconsidering their [reliance] on private prisons and developing plans to begin canceling these contracts rather than continuing this experiment,” he stated.

Numerous other advocates, including the Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of PLN, agreed and issued statements and press releases in support of the OIG’s findings after Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates sent a memo to the BOP on August 18, 2016, to begin the process of “reducing – and ultimately ending – our use of privately operated prisons.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.28]. That decision does not, however, impact state prisons, immigration detention centers, or local jails that are run by for-profit companies.

This article recently appeared in Prison Legal News in October 2016.