Reports of the Death of Private Prisons have been Greatly Exaggerated

One month ago, the US Department of Justice made a major announcement that the federal prison system would be moving away from the use of private prisons. As contracts with private prison management corporations expire, the DOJ will not be renewing them (or will significantly "reduce the scope" of the contracts). For many, this announcement heralded a new period of criminal justice reform. This may indeed be true, but--if that is to be the case--it leaves much to be desired. Some thoughts:

First, this announcement doesn't directly affect that many inmates, relatively speaking. There are around 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, but only about 22,000 of them are held in privately-run federal prisons. Put another way, there are almost 4,600 prisons in the US and 13 of them are privately-run federal prisons (the rest are non-private federal prisons and state prisons). The announcement, then, is largely symbolic. It's an important gesture, but not the sweeping change that progressives might have been hoping for.

Second, and related, the move away from private prisons will occur only in the federal prison system. Out of the approximately 4,600 total US prisons, 122 are federal. The rest are state prisons which fall under the jurisdiction of each state's department of corrections. It will be up to each state to decide whether or not they want to follow the lead of the federal Bureau of Prisons (for the time being, at least).

Third (and most important for opponents of prison privatization), the actual scope of prison privatization goes well beyond the management of prison complexes. The conversation about privatization remains unduly focused on private management. While only a subset of US prisons are owned/managed by private firms, the overwhelming majority nevertheless contract with private firms to fulfill various services. Things like food, medical care, education, a wide variety of prisoner work programs, and other services are overseen by private companies within the nation's prisons. In this sense, most of the nation's prisons might be considered privatized to different degrees. According to the memo from the Department of Justice announcing the reduction of private contracts, private firms "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." If this is a concern for the management of prison complexes (and indeed a warrant for change), then it follows that the same concerns should apply to the management of individual services.