The DOJ's Decision About For-Profit Prisons Might Make The Justice System A Little More Just

This move could define Obama's presidency.

The Department of Justice announced Thursday plans to end its use of private prisons after several investigations revealed low-quality care and conditions. The news has been a long time coming: private prisons have been in the spotlight for years. 

The most recent season of Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix series that put the lives of prisoners behind bars in living rooms across America, in many ways functioned as a 13-episode critique of the effect for-profit prisons had on prisoners' quality of life. As Meredith Blake put it in the Los Angeles Times, the show's popularity reflects "a growing public awareness around the problems of mass incarceration," which has put 2.2 million people behind bars. 

In a memo posted on the DOJ website, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that she informed the Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to "decline to renew or substantially decrease the scope" of private prison contracts coming to an end of their term. 

The move comes just a week after a DOJ report revealed contract prisons "incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions." Several bodily injuries, the damaging of property and even the death of correctional officers have occurred in private prisons in recent years. A few weeks ago, an investigative report by Mother Jones — in which a staff writer worked as a private prison security guard for four months — revealed the deeply concerning conditions of a Louisiana prison and helped shed light on the horrifying reality inside for-profit correctional facilities. 

Ronald Day of The Fortune Society, an organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration, characterized the DOJ's decision to A Plus as "an affirmation that the lives of people in prison matter."

A Plus also spoke to Alexander Horwitz, the Chief of Staff of The Doe Fund, a program that helps formerly incarcerated men who are homeless upon their release re-enter society. He told A Plus in a phone interview that there was no previous indication that the government would stop using private prisons.

"We're certainly part of a community of advocates that have been desperate for this change to take place and it's a huge deal that today is the day," Horwitz said.

Horwitz emphasized the choice Americans are faced with: do we want our prisons to be a place where people go to be punished or a place they go to have their lives restored? If we want the latter, this decision is something we as a nation should be proud of. The cost of for-profit prisons isn't just seen in long-term prisoner outcomes: $639 million of taxpayer money has gone to the private prison industrial complex, according to Horwitz. 

"If all we want is to punish people and to punish them really badly then privatize the whole thing, but if we have any aspirations to be a better society than that, then we have to do better than that," he said. "We have to get the private sector out of corrections."

Since the news broke, the worth of private prison stock has fallen dramatically:

And while many like Horwitz are celebrating the news, others are moving forward with more tempered expectations. Both The Huffington Post and VICE were quick to emphasize that this does not mean an end to private, for-profit prisons.

Via The Huffington Post's Alexander C. Kaufman:

The Department of Justice announcement, following a report that found private prisons are less safe than federally run alternatives, only applies to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which accounts for just a fraction of the private prison industry's business. Over the past decade, immigration detention has become the industry's cash cow. State contracts remain a lucrative revenue stream, too. Plus, as talk of prison reform gained steam over the past two years, the only three companies ― two public, one private ― under contract from the Federal Bureau of Prisons began diversifying their services to include halfway houses and electronic GPS monitoring.  

In other words, many in the for-profit prison industry were prepared for this blow. But it's still a major milestone, and if history is any indication, state correctional facilities may follow the federal government's lead and divorce themselves from the for-profit market. 

The math of the private prison system is simple: prisoners are commodities, and more commodity, the more opportunity for profit. According to Horwitz, that motivator to put more people behind bars "isn't just immoral, it's un-American."

"We also know and our data shows our prisons are criminogenic: they create criminal activity," Horwitz said. "It's a great irony and a great blight on American society and there is no doubt that treating people as commodities contributes to that."

And he's right: recidivism rates — or the rates released prisoners are re-arrested — range from 67 to 78 percent, according to a National Institute of Justice study. Correctional facilities are failing miserably at doing any kind of correcting. 

This news comes as a string of major prison reforms have made headlines in the last two years. We've seen the cost of prison calls plummet, inmates win a lawsuit for drinkable water, protections for LGBT prisoners instituted, access to feminine hygiene products granted, mandatory minimum sentences reduced, overcrowding addressed and the banning of solitary confinement for children. 

If the DOJ's most recent announcement is any indication, we're headed in the right direction to make our justice system a little bit more just. 

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Cover photo:  Flickr / Bob Jagendorf