Will The Justice Department's Decision To End Private Prisons Help Children?

Hand in jail
Hand in jail

On August 18, 2016, the Justice Department announced plans to end its use of private prisons. Government officials have long known about the health and safety risks at private prisons and the sometimes abusive (and unchecked) practices that take place behind barbwire fences and metal bars at those facilities. In short, there is less safety and efficiency at private prison facilities than those run by the government.

From a financial point of view private prison facilities do not save money. The federal government has paid more for sometimes complicated and even devastating outcomes of medical neglect and abuse. However, finances are not all that matters, nor should they (or were they) the driving force to move away from private prisons. Human dignity, accountability, and justice matter in all facets of our legal system.

The federal government turned to privatized prisons in the wake of what Democrats and Republicans both agree was a failed drug war. As Ms. Yates explained in her memo, "between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population increased by almost 800 percent." The federal government turned to private prisons to house its growing incarcerated populations--most of whom were poor and disproportionately men and women of color. Many were young. And, although the U.S. comprises only 5% of the world's population, it houses 25% of the globe's incarcerated men and women. The U.S. incarcerates more men and women than any other nation in the world. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. prison population were arrested for non-violent offenses.

In a widely distributed memo for the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Thomas Kane, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed officials responsible for government contracts with prisons to "substantially reduce" those agreements with the goal of "ultimately ending--our use of privately operated prisons." She wrote, "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." She's right. Neither do the privatized facilities provide the types of rehabilitative services that are crucial to achieving low recidivism and transitioning incarcerated persons to productive lives beyond prison gates.

The big question, however, is whether states will follow suit? The federal government's prison population is a fraction of what constitutes the overall prison population. States all over the country accept solicitations from private prisons, including to house kids. Some of these facilities are notorious boot camps, where kids have been beaten up, stomped on the chest, or even died. In 2001, a 14-year-old died at a "tough love" private facility. When that child's death was investigated, officials noted horrible bruises on the other kids. Even Sheriff Arpaio observed that "these kids didn't get bruises falling off a platform."

One girl told reporters, "These bruises on my arm are from Sgt. Fontenot punching me, and these on my legs are from him kicking me." Another child reported, "They were bringing kids over there and making them lay on their backs and pouring mud down their throats and stomping on their chests with the heel of their boot."

In response, one of the officials claimed, "we aren't doing anything out there that's not approved by the kids and their parents."

By the time of Tony Haynes' death, several other children had died in private boot camp facilities. The record of medical neglect at private facilities that service children is lengthy, but so are charges of sexual abuse, physical batteries, and threats.

One special report exposes what simply amounts to inhumane treatment, cruelty, and torture of children at private jail facilities. Despite the Eighth Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual treatment, many of the children caught in the grasps of these facilities have been overlooked. The companies often underpay their workers, provide inadequate training, and are alleged to forge records. When a child and a guard disagree about an allegation of abuse, the file is closed as "inconclusive." About seventy-five percent of cases close in that matter.

The federal government has taken a first step toward reform, but more is needed. If incarcerated adults deserve better facilities and more humane treatment, so too do children.