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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Feds discontinue use of private prisons

It’s closing time for federal prisons run by private companies. And the reasons why say a lot about the current criminal justice system.

According to a memo released by the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be “beginning the process of reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” After a decade spent contracting private companies to aid in oversight of growing prison populations, the federal government will be halting the program and returning to an all-government run system.

The change won’t have an effect on Colorado. All the federal prisons located within our state, including the SuperMax facility in Florence, have always been government-administered. In fact, private vendors oversee only 13 total facilities in the entire federal system. Consequently, the actual impact to anyone outside those prisons will be largely unnoticed.

But the reasoning contained in the two-page memo deserves more attention. Specifically, the third paragraph of the memo, written by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, is damning for privately run facilities. Yates wrote that “time has shown that they compare 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 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.”

The recriminations included in just two sentences paint a disturbing picture of the past decade in the federal criminal justice system and give state legislators good reason to take a second look at our own state facilities. First, while “services, programs, and resources” for prisoners often become hot-button issues themselves, most agree that they are critical to rehabilitation and, as the memo states, “essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.” Because most prisoners will be released into society again, concern over the public’s future safety must be a primary concern. If it isn’t, then it simply becomes a societal version of Russian roulette. Sooner or later, someone loses.

Second, the failure to save on cost undermines the efficiency argument many private prison advocates employ. The business efficiencies, or corners cut depending on your outlook, can only be justified in a concurrent reduction in actual dollars. If the dollar value saved isn’t substantial, it necessarily becomes outweighed by the societal cost of reduced rehabilitative services. Such a cost-benefit analysis wouldn’t be good for any business, much less the public safety.

Finally, the safety and security of prisoners cannot be overlooked. While their crimes landed them in prison, it is the time and confinement that serve as punishment, not injuries inflicted by fellow inmates. Such harm often leads to the opposite of rehabilitation; otherwise potentially reformed prisoners can be transformed into much greater threats to public safety than they posed prior to incarceration. Last week, I wrote about the concerns cited by a Boulder district court judge when sentencing Austin Wilkerson to work release rather than prison. The judge specifically cited misgivings about the treatment Wilkerson would be subject to in prison and the effect it would have on his potential for rehabilitation.

While the Justice Department found that changes in sentencing guidelines and charging policies helped reverse the dramatic thirty-year climb in prison populations, more than 195,000 people remain behind federal bars. As of Dec. 31, 2014, Colorado had more than 20,000 people in state prisons, several operated by private companies. Until we find a better way of reducing crime, it behooves the state to take a long look at its own system for similar deficiencies.

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