The Justice Department will end its use of private prisons, officials said in a memo released today.
The decision, which was first reported by The Washington Post, means that private prisons that house tens of thousands of federal inmates will shut down over the next few years. It follows a major report released by the department's inspector general last week that found that inmates in private prisons were more likely to be injured and that the prisons were less effective that publicly run institutions.
“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,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in the one-and-a-half page memo.
The policy does not apply to the private immigration detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security or private prisons contracted by states.
The Department of Justice currently contracts 13 private prisons, known as "Criminal Alien Requirement prisons," most of which hold undocumented immigrants already sentenced for crimes. They will be closed and scaled down gradually, as Justice Department officials decide not to renew private prison contracts as they come due, Yates said.
As of December 2015, there were more than 22,000 federal inmates in private prisons, the report found. Yates told the Post she hoped that by May 1, 2017, the total private prison population would stand at less than 14,200 inmates.
The stock prices of the country's two biggest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, immediately fell upon the release of the news. In a statement to Fusion, CCA said that the DOJ prisons only amount to seven percent of its business.
The decision is a major victory for activists who have fought private prisons for years. "This is an important and groundbreaking moment that is marking the beginning of the end of the BOP's two-decade experiment with private prisons," Carl Takei, an attorney at the ACLU, told Fusion.
Cristina Parker, an activist with Grassroots Leadership, a Texas group that protests immigration detention, said that DHS should follow suit in ending privately-run detention centers.
"One part of the federal government has decided they don't want to work with these companies, but these are the exact same companies" that run immigration detention centers, she said. "It's a long time coming."
In the memo, Yates said that ceasing private prison use was possible because reforms in sentencing and charging policies had reduced the overall federal prison population over the last few years.
"This decline in the prison population means that we can better allocate our resources to ensure that inmates are in the safest facilities and receiving the best rehabilitative services," Yates said.
Last year, a Fusion investigation found that without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations had created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.
An investigation by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer earlier this year put more scrutiny on abuses in private prisons. Bauer spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Louisiana, and uncovered the horrible conditions many inmates lived in.
Several activists predicted that the DOJ's decision could lead to similar policy changes for federal immigration detention centers and state private prisons.
"If I was sitting in the DHS or at a state or municipality, I would be looking at what the DOJ is doing and think: 'I should take heed of this,'" said Lisa Graybill, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.