The Failure of Private Prisons in the US - August 2016

The Failure of Private Prisons in the US

The Obama Administration recently announced plans to end the federal government’s use of private prisons after an inquiry found they were drastically less safe than publically run facilities.

The Obama Administration has announced it will end the federal government’s use of private prisons. This landmark decision was made after the Office of the Inspector General (U.S Department of Justice) released a report detailing the substantial shortcomings in security and safety of the privately run prisons.

On August 1, 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons that as each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to review the contract or substantially reduce its scope.1 The Deputy Attorney General stated this represented the first step towards reducing, and, ultimately ending the use of privately operated prisons at the federal level.

In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began contracting with privately operated institutions to manage the rising federal prison population. The main reported objectives were to reduce overcrowding, acquire additional beds speedily increase operational flexibility and to make savings in operational and construction costs.2 The inmates to be housed in the contract prisons were primarily low risk inmates convicted of immigration offences.3

There are currently 14 private prisons contracted by the federal government in the US, run by three organizations: GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of American (CCA), and Management and Training Corporation. The contracted prisons house approximately 12 per cent of the total prison population (22,660 inmates), at an annual cost of $639 million. By 2013, federal prisoners in private facilities reached their peak, and as of December 2015, federal prisons were operating at 20% over its capacity.4

Several high-profile incidents which highlighted safety and security concerns in privately operated prisons have been credited for the review, including cases of arson at Willacy County Correctional Centre in February 2015, and the death of a Correctional Officer at Adams County Correctional Centre in May 2012.

The Office of the Inspector General’s report found that private prisons had significantly more safety and security incidents than comparable public prisons. Data was analysed in eight key categories: contraband, reports of incidents, lockdowns, inmate discipline, telephone monitoring, selected grievances, urinalysis drug testing, and sexual misconduct. With the exception of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than public institutions in all of the other categories.5

Site visits also revealed a number of shortcomings in the management and monitoring of contract prisons. Two of the three contract prisons visited were improperly housing new inmates in Special Housing Units (SHU), normally reserved for disciplinary or administrative segregation, until beds become available in the general population. These new inmates had not engaged in any of the behaviors cited in the American Correctional Association Standards that would justify being placed in such administrative or disciplinary segregation. During a site visit to one prison, it was found there was no full-time physician, as required by its approved staffing plan, for the 8-month period between December 2013 and August 2014. In addition, specific health service deficiencies were recorded including failing to provide prescribed antiviral therapy for inmates with hepatitis C, not following up with inmates with positive tuberculosis test results, missing preventive care evaluations and dental exams, and failing to provide some immunisations.

Additionally, the examination showed the BOP failed to provide a regular, substantive review or monitoring process to verify contract compliance. The absence of efficient monitoring and accountability mechanisms and its enforcement by the BOP significantly contributed to the failure of the contract prisons to provide a safe and secure environment for the inmates.

Proposed Privatisation in Australia

In March 2016 the NSW Government revealed that the state prison system will undergo major reform, starting with a competitive tender to private and public operators of John Morony Correctional Centre (JMCC) in Windsor.6 Minister for Corrections David Elliot stated that performance targets such as security, participation in rehabilitation and out of cell hours, will be developed to allow for comparisons between all prisons. Market testing for JMCC will be overseen by Professor Gary Sturgess, who holds the Australia and New Zealand School of Government Chair of Public Service Delivery and spent more than a decade as director of Serco Group,7 a private prison operator in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Whilst the prison reforms will provide at least 1,100 new beds to address overcrowding,8 Steve McMahon of the Public Service Association reported concerns that prison privatisation is simply a cost-cutting measure, lacks accountability and transparency, and will lead to dangerous situations inside jails.9

One of the three prison operators in the US, GEO Group, whose prisons were subject of the BOP’s investigation into contract prisons, is a current operator of five Australian Correctional Facilities.10

To read more about Obama's plan to end the federal government's use of private prisons, CLICK HERE.

For an international analysis of private prisons, CLICK HERE.

For further information on the privatisation of prisons, CLICK HERE.


1. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, Phasing Out Our Use of Private Prisons (1 August 2016) The United States Department of Justice <https://www.justice.gov>; Sally Q Yates, Memorandum for the Acting Director Federal Bureau of Prisons (August 18 2016) U.S. Department of Justice.
2. Douglas McDonald and Carl Patten, ‘Governments’ Management of Private Prisons’ (document No. 203968, Prepared for National Institute of Justice, Washington, September 15 2003) 4. 
3. Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons (August 2016) i.
4. Ibid ii.
5. Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons (August 2016) ii. 
6. David Elliott, ‘Prison Reform to Improve Community Safety’ (Media Release, 20 March 2016).
7. Francesca Wallace, ‘NSW prisons risk private sector takeover’ The Sydney Morning Herald (online), March 21 2016.
8. David Elliott, ‘Prison Reform to Improve Community Safety’ (Media Release, 20 March 2016).
9. Wallace, above n 7.
10. <http://www.geogroup.com.au/locations.html> 


  • get involved2
  • donate
  • breakout-logo2



Justice Action
Trades Hall, Level 2, Suite 204
4 Goulburn Street
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

T 02 9283 0123
F 02 9283 0112
E ja@justiceaction.org.au
© 2017 Breakout Media Communications
breakout-logo  womens justice network icon logo-community