Should public governments use private prisons?
As of 2017, 8.2 percent of federal and state prisoners were housed in private prisons. Run by companies with for-profit motives beginning in the 1980s, the institutions have become increasingly controversial in recent years, with attention drawn to cost-cutting measures such as the well-publicized case of maggots in the food.
Critics also say the private prison system encourages mass incarceration, especially in states where judges are elected, because their biggest campaign funders are often private prisons whose incentives are electing particularly punitive judges to hand down especially long sentences.
In August 2016, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department announced it would phase out private prisons for federal inmates. In February 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded that decision, allowing private prisons on a federal level once again by saying they increase governments’ flexibility when it comes to incarceration and can save money. 2017 proved one of the private prison industry’s most financially lucrative years ever.
In his first week in office in January 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order once again phasing out most private prisons on a federal level. Some on the right oppose the move, while some on the left say it didn’t go far enough.
What the bill does
The Justice is Not for Sale Act would also ban private prisons on both the state and local level, as well as by the Department of Homeland Security. (Biden’s executive order had only banned federal private prisons for the Department of Justice.)
It was introduced in the House on February 11 as H.R. 994, by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ3).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that private prisons’ profit motive results in inhumane treatment, and that it encourages a continued system of mass incarceration.
“For too long, private prisons and detention centers have benefited from lucrative government contracts and taxpayer dollars to profit off the pain and suffering of adults and children,” Rep. Grijalva said in a press release. “They created perverse profit incentives that helped facilitate a mass incarceration crisis that has disproportionately impacted immigrants and communities of color.”
“Unfortunately, the private prison industry continues to expand its scope of operations and influence and spend millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to weasel their way into new profits streams that include providing ‘restorative’ services that are traditionally performed by community and nonprofit organizations,” Rep. Grijalva continued. “With positive steps taken at the federal level to end our reliance on private prisons and detention centers, Congress must take the important step to end it once and for all.”
What opponents say
Opponents say that not only do private prisons save governments money over publicly-run prisons, but that reports of private prisons’ conditions are exaggerated.
“Any assertion that our company or the private sector is responsible for the rate of incarceration or detention is false,” private prison company CoreCivic said in a media statement responding to Biden’s executive order. “Under longstanding policy, we don’t lobby on any policies, regulations or legislation that impact the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention. What’s more, only 8 percent of inmates are cared for in facilities run by private contractors.”
“While we aren’t the driver of mass incarceration, we are working hard to be part of the solution. Our efforts are fully aligned with the [Biden] administration’s goal to prioritize rehabilitation and redemption for individuals in our criminal justice system,” CoreCivic continued. “Every day, CoreCivic helps nearly 1,500 inmates learn the life and vocational skills they need to find and keep employment once released.”
Odds of passage
Rep. Grijalva introduced the bill in at least the previous three Congresses, where it attracted only Democratic cosponsors but never received a committee vote, not even last Congress when Democrats controlled the chamber. His September 2015 version attracted 30 Democratic cosponsors, then his July 2017 version increased to 52 Democratic cosponsors, then (for reasons unclear) his August 2020 version decreased to 19 Democratic cosponsors.
The current version has so far attracted 32 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in either House Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Homeland Security, or Judiciary Committee.