According to the most recently available data—from December 2016— 28 states and the federal government held 128,300 people in privately run prisons—9 percent of the nation’s total prison population.Carson, “Prisoners in 2016” (2018), at 1, 14.
In August 2016, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report found that certain privately operated prisons were more dangerous and violent than Bureau of Prisons-operated facilities, and the Obama administration announced it would phase out the use of private prisons for federal prisoners (though not for immigration detainees).U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons (Washington, DC: DOJ, 2016), ii, 44-45; Memorandum from U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons re: Reducing Our Use of Private Prisons, August 18, 2016; and Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jana Kasperkevic, “US Justice Department Announces it Will End Use of Private Prisons,” Guardian, August 18, 2016.
However, under the Trump administration, the DOJ rescinded that policy in February 2017 and, in May, the Bureau of Prisons renewed two contracts with GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies.Memorandum from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons re: Rescission of Memorandum on Use of Private Prisons, February 21, 2017; Oliver Laughland and Jon Swaine, “US Private Prison Program Rebooted by Trump Administration,” Guardian, February 23, 2017; “U.S. Reverses Obama-Era Move to Phase Out Private Prisons,” Reuters, Feb. 23, 2017; and Eli Watkins and Sophie Tatum, “Private Prison Industry Sees Boon Under Trump Administration,” CNN.com, August 18, 2017.
For-profit, prison-related industries have also drawn some scrutiny. There are numerous private companies selling goods and services to prison systems, like commissary items, telephone services, and health care for incarcerated people—a multibillion dollar industry that often uses its status as the only available option to benefit from mass incarceration.Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” Prison Policy Initiative, January 25, 2017.
Recently, the media has drawn attention to the “private extradition industry”—companies employed by prison and jail systems to transport incarcerated individuals around the country. A major investigation in 2016 unearthed stories of weeks-long journeys, sexual assault and other abuses, and deaths from medical neglect or vehicle accidents.Alysia Santo and Eli Hager, “Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport,” The Marshall Project, July 6, 2016.
Following these reports, 2017 saw calls for congressional hearings on the issue.Alysia Santo and Eli Hager, “Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport,” The Marshall Project, July 6, 2016; Alysia Santo and Eli Hager, “Justice Department Probes Alleged Abuses on Prison Transport Vans,” The Marshall Project, June 6, 2017; and Eli Hager and Alysia Santo, “Congressman Calls for Probe into Private Prisoner Transport,” The Marshall Project, April 26, 2017.