The Justice Department is phasing out its use of corporate-run prisons, including one near Bakersfield, after concluding its experiment in privatization failed to reduce costs and ensure the safety and security of inmates.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Q. Yates said the government is "beginning the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons" by not renewing contracts for 14 such facilities, most of which are in Texas or elsewhere across the South.
Prison reformers hailed the move as a positive step toward ending mass incarceration. The idea of corporations building and operating prisons for government took off in the 1980s and 1990s when tough-on-crime policies swelled the nation's prison population.
From 1980 to its peak in 2013, the federal prison population grew from 25,000 to 219,000. By then, about 30,000 inmates, or 15%, were held in the corporate-run prisons.
But the number of federal inmates dropped by about 22,000 over the last two years, and Obama administration officials have questioned the value of using privately run facilities.
An inspector general's report released last week found "more safety and security incidents per capita" at the corporate-run prisons compared with those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Citing the recent report, Yates said that while "private prisons served an important role during a difficult period,...time has shown that they compared poorly to our own bureau facilities."
"They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs, and...they do not maintain the same level of safety and security," she said.
The gradual phase-out would reduce the total private-prison population to fewer than 14,000 inmates by May, she said.
The decision does not affect privately run facilities that are used to hold people suspected of immigration violations.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, hailed the decision as a "major milestone in the movement away from mass incarceration."
He said the arrival of private prisons helped fuel the "unprecedented growth in incarceration."
"It has been a stain on our democracy to permit profit-making entities to be handed the responsibility of making determinations of individual liberty," Mauer said.
Todd R. Clear, a prison policy expert at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, agreed that profits played a role in the growth of the prison population.
"As long as we have people making money off of prisons, the ability to make sound prison policy is distorted by the profit motive," he said. "Getting them out of the picture is a necessary step in getting the prison numbers reduced."
California has only one facility affected by the government's decision. The Taft Correctional Institution, about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield, holds 1,795 inmates and is operated by the Management and Training Corp.
Issa Arnita, MTC's director of communications, said the decision was disappointing and would be costly to taxpayers. He said a recent Bureau of Prisons report showed private prisons save taxpayers $17 per day per offender.
"If DOJ's decision were based solely on declining inmate populations, there may be some justification, but to base this decision on cost, safety and security, and programming is wrong. The facts don't support the allegations," he said.
MTC also operates a prison in Texas. The other prisons are operated by Corrections Corp. of America or GEO Group Inc.
A spokesman for the Nashville-based CCA also called the safety and quality conclusions of the inspector general's report badly flawed. "The findings don't match up to the numerous independent studies that show our facilities to be equal or better with regard to safety and quality," said Jonathan Burns. He said the federal prisons that are affected by the decision "make up 7% of our business."
The company's stock dropped 35% after the announcement Thursday.
While the Justice Department may be backing away from private prisons, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently signed a four-year contract with CCA to build and maintain detention facilities in Texas to hold asylum-seekers.
The surge in Central American families crossing the border prompted U.S. officials to seek new facilities to hold them while their claims were heard.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill have questioned this growing reliance on corporate facilities for holding immigrants.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called Thursday's announcement "an important first step in addressing this unacceptable situation, but it is not enough. We must insist that these changes are adopted by all federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which relies heavily on private prisons even for housing vulnerable women and children. Incarceration should not be a for-profit business."
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2:20 p.m.: The story was updated with additional reaction and background.