Sanders, liberals press Obama to expand closure of private prisons

Sanders, liberals press Obama to expand closure of private prisons
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The Justice Department's decision Thursday to end its use of private prisons means tens of thousands of federal inmates will eventually be shifted out of a system that's been heavily criticized as ineffective, inefficient and dangerous. 

But the broader consequences might come further down the road, as the move puts immediate pressure on states, local governments and even other agencies within the Obama administration to get out of the private-prison business.

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"Today’s announcement from the Justice Department is an important first step," said Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyAppropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid House panel investigating decision to resume federal executions Graham moves controversial asylum bill through panel; Democrats charge he's broken the rules MORE (Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "But it is not enough."

Democrats have long attacked the Homeland Security Department's use of privately run facilities, particularly the detention centers that have housed thousands of immigrant families seeking refuge from violence in Central American. And liberals like Leahy are using the DOJ's policy change to press Obama to expand the private-prison ban across the administration, to include those centers and other facilities overseen by the DHS.

"Until DHS and state governments around the country break ties with these corporations, justice in this country will continue to be undermined by private profit motives, and innocent people will continue to suffer," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement. 

“This isn’t simply unjust detainment, this is the exploitation of human captivity — including young children — for the sake of money."

The domino effect described by Grijalva would impact many thousands more people who are detained by the DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch. 

Indeed, while the total federal prison population under the DOJ is almost 195,000, only about 22,100, or 12 percent, are in privately run prisons, according to the agency. Under ICE's oversight, there are more than 24,500 detainees in private facilities — almost 73 percent of the total population, a spokesperson said Thursday.

The state numbers are even more significant. More than 91,000 state inmates were incarcerated in privately run facilities in 2014, according to New York University's Brennan Center, citing DOJ statistics. 

The administration's new guidelines don't cover ICE detainees or those in state and local prisons. And that, according to many liberal Democrats, is a mistake. 

“We have got to end the private prison racket in America as quickly as possible," Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Top aide Jeff Weaver lays out Sanders's path to victory MORE (I-Vt.), who made criminal justice reform a central part of his recent presidential run, said in a statement.

The liberals may not want to hold their breath for the DHS to follow the Justice Department's lead.

ICE issued a statement Thursday afternoon defending the agency's use of privately run facilities and suggesting it will continue to do so.

"ICE remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody," spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement. 

The agency uses a variety of detention models, including privately run facilities, in order "to meet the agency’s detention needs while protecting taxpayer resources," Elzea said. 

In all cases, "ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement," she added.

To the liberal critics, however, such protections are impossible to guarantee as long as the facilities are run for profit.

"Private, for profit prisons create perverse and counterproductive incentives that only worsen our crisis of over-incarceration," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary panel, said in a statement.  

Officials in the Justice Department seem to agree. 

In an Aug. 18 memo to the head of the Bureau of Prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said private prisons "compare poorly" to government-run institutions, directing the agency either to terminate private contracts "or substantially reduce [their] scope" when they expire. 

"This is the first step in the process of reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons," Yates wrote in an accompanying statement.

Explaining the shift, Yates said the additional facilities had been needed as federal incarceration numbers rose over the last three decades, peaking at 220,00 in 2013. But that number has fallen to 195,000, she said, largely as a result of more lenient drug-sentencing guidelines and Obama's "ongoing clemency initiative."

"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities," Yates wrote in the memo. "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."  

Yates also said that education, training and other rehabilitative services provided by the DOJ "have proved difficult to replicate and outsource" to the private companies. 

"[T]hese services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety," she wrote. 

The announcement struck an immediate blow to the largest private prison companies. The GEO Group saw its stock price plummet by more than 39 percent Thursday, while that of the Corrections Corporation of America fell more than 35 percent.   

Those two federally contracted companies — along with Management and Training Corporation, another federal contractor that's not publicly traded — spent a combined $18 million to lobby the federal government over the last 10 years, according to lobbying disclosure records. 

They shouldn't expect any sympathy from their liberal critics.  

"People die in these facilities because companies refuse to pay for adequate medical care. People starve because they have no other means of taking a stand against the injustices inmates face besides hunger strikes," Grijalva said.  

"I urge all government actors with ties to this morally bankrupt industry to follow DOJ’s lead and end their contracts without delay.” 

Megan Wilson contributed.