Federal prisons run by private prison companies aren’t just less safe and less secure than than their publicly run counterparts. They’re also inadequately supervised by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which has outsourced the incarceration of 12 percent of its inmates to three giant for-profit prison companies, while allowing gaps in oversight that endangered inmates and put their rights at risk.
That’s the takeaway from a damning new report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The report, released Thursday, examined how the BOP monitored its contracts with three of the nation’s largest private prison companies: Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation. For $639 million, these corporations run the country’s 14 private federal prisons, incarcerating around 22,660 people as of December—mainly low-security immigrants serving short sentences.
The inspector general’s findings corroborate years of reports documenting violence in private prisons, including Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer’s immersive investigation of a CCA prison in Louisiana.
Compared to federal prisons of similar sizes, locations, and security levels, the private facilities had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults, and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults per capita between 2011 and 2014. Prison officials also found nearly twice as many weapons and eight times as many cellphones in private prisons as compared to BOP prisons, per capita. The inspector general also found that private prisons went on “lockdown” much more frequently, confining inmates to their quarters “often in response to a disturbance or incident that threatens the secure and orderly running of the prison.” The number of private prison lockdowns: 101; in BOP-run prisons: 11.
The inspector general found that least two private prisons dealt with overcrowding by automatically assigning new inmates to “special housing units”—isolation units, including solitary confinement, usually used to discipline inmates. There, they were subject to special restrictions, including “controlled movements; limited access to programs such as education or vocational programs, as well as work details; and limited telephone calls.” (According to wardens at the facilities, they had no choice. Vacant beds in solitary created the appearance of extra space at their facilities, so the BOP assigned them more inmates—and the prisons were not allowed to refuse them.)
BOP monitors, who are charged with ensuring that the private prisons are following federal policy and fulfilling the terms of their contracts, did not verify whether inmates were receiving basic medical care, according to the report. One facility went without a full-time doctor for eight months, in violation of its contract—even though the monitor reported it as being in compliance. Monitors also are not instructed to verify that private companies are conducting regular searches of housing units and visiting areas, nor are they required to confirm that the prisons are employing enough staff.
Private facilities did have fewer positive drug tests and sexual-misconduct incidents than BOP prisons, though the inspector general noted that limited or faulty data existed in both of those categories. In its response to a preliminary copy of the report, GEO Group’s executive vice president wrote that the higher incident numbers in private prisons could be explained by more diligent incident reporting than in public prisons.
The companies also claimed that elevated violence in private prisons could be attributed to their “homogenous foreign national population”—largely Mexican—resulting in a “high number of gang affiliations,” according to GEO and CCA. “Any casual reader would come to the conclusion that contract prisons are not as safe as BOP prisons,” wrote Scott Marquardt, president of MTC. “The conclusion is wrong.”