KIM BROWN, TRNN: Today the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will phase out the federal use of private prisons. This decision follows an investigative report that the DOJ released last week, which found that conditions in private prisons are far more unsafe and harsh than in their publicly-owned counterparts.
Now joining us to discuss this is Maya Schenwar. Maya is the editor in chief of Truthout, and also the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Maya, thanks so much for joining us.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Thanks for having me.
BROWN: Maya, let’s talk about the significance of this DOJ announcement. They have said that over the next five years they’ll let their contracts expire with the 13 private prisons they currently use. Over 22,000 federal inmates are currently in those prisons, and that’s about 11 percent of all federal prisoners. What were your initial reactions to this? Are you celebrating?
SCHENWAR: Absolutely. I do think it’s a positive step. And I say step because it is definitely not an end in itself.
What we want is decarceration, right? We want fewer people in prison. But as long as our government is still caging people, we have to remember that these are human beings living in these prisons, and the conditions in private prisons are in general worse than public prisons. There are even fewer resources, more violence, particularly perpetrated by guards. And also just fundamentally, the idea of a profit motive that’s contingent on caging human beings is just repugnant.
So these companies lobby to continue existing and continue expanding, so basically they’re lobbying for violence. Their interest is in continuing to cage people and lock people up. And I think we need to reject that completely.
So yes, I’m celebrating. But I do think that this announcement by the Department of Justice should not cause us to sit back. Really, we need to, I think, step up as a result of it, because federal private prisons are actually a very, very small percent of the overall system. And even deprivatizing them or moving those people who are incarcerated in private prisons to public prisons doesn’t actually get anyone out.
So I think — just a couple of things about this. First of all, it does not apply to state prisons. So most incarcerated people in the United States are in state prisons or local jails, and this plan doesn’t apply to them. So I think first of all we have to recognize this is just happening in the federal system. Also, I think we have to recognize that this is the Department of Justice specifically. It’s not the Department of Homeland Security, that deals with immigration. And I think we can get more into that in detail, if you’d like.
And also, I just want to point out the Department of Justice has hundreds of halfway houses, so like, reentry centers, which are operated by private companies. And this decision about getting away from private prisons explicitly doesn’t apply to those. It says that in the DOJ memo.
So I think we have to recognize this is a small percentage of the prison population. And ultimately also we have no idea whether this plan will actually fuel decarceration. Getting people out. So that’s the question that we need to be asking.
BROWN: Maya, in the past few years there has been increased attention placed on the for-profit prison industry, and the attention has created some momentum. For example, Hillary Clinton stopped accepting funds from private prison lobbyists last October after her campaign had a series of meetings with groups, including Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, and United We Dream. So is this raised awareness and activism to be credited for this DOJ decision?
SCHENWAR: Yeah, I think absolutely activism has played a huge role. And I think that’s being minimized a little bit in all of the headlines today. It’s being talked about as if there was just this investigation by the Department of Justice and inspector general, and oops, they found the private prisons are not so great. And so therefore they’re making these changes.
And I think really, this decision is the result of years and years of activist pressure, of public pressure, including by groups like the Human Rights Defense Center, which has been doing this for years and years and years, just pushing, pushing, pushing on private prisons, as well as all of the momentum happening as a result of the current racial justice movement, the Movement for Black Lives.
And so I think, you know, which is putting, I think, a lot more pressure in general around policing, incarceration, criminalization itself. The idea of criminality, and who that’s tied to. And so I think that all of these things have really created a certain amount of momentum.
One thing in my mind around this, and this came up during the primaries, because you know Bernie Sanders, his position on prisons, his advocacy of a ban on private prisons was really, really centered in this idea of privatization. And the one thing that I would caution against is getting the idea that this is a victory that kind of stops. And certainly a lot of the activists who have been pushing back against private prisons would say that they’re just one component of this much, much larger system.
And you mentioned Black Lives Matter. I mean, certainly within that movement there is a wholesale recognition that that piece is just a small, small part. So I think that the response needs to be, of course, celebration, but also a renewed commitment. And I think particularly on the part of people who are just sort of seeing this news come through and aren’t directly engaged in the issues, I would definitely urge a strong awareness that private prisons are a small piece of the puzzle.
BROWN: Well, over 60 percent of immigration detention beds are operated by these private prisons, and most recently the Obama administration approved a no-bid, $1 billion deal to construct one of these immigration detention centers to house, specifically, Central American refugees who were coming into, coming across the border. Are those amongst the private prisons that will be phased out of use?
SCHENWAR: No. So actually, when I first heard the news, that was the first thing I thought of, because I kind of just heard this. Oh, private prisons are being banned on the federal level. And I thought, that must also include immigrant detention. But no, the Department of Justice’s plan does not apply to immigrant detention. That’s under the Department of Homeland Security, and this was DOJ specific.
So that’s definitely something where you have a system in which the majority of prisons — they’re really prisons, jails, as opposed to just facilities — these immigrant jails are majority operated by private companies. And so I think that’s another area to definitely push back in addition to pushing for, you know, decriminalization in that regard, too, and thinking really seriously about immigrant policy as a whole, as opposed to just who’s operating the detention centers.
BROWN: So, Maya, quick question, because obviously we are in an election season and there will be a new president come January of next year. Should we elect a President Trump, is it possible that he could direct the Department of Justice to scrap this Obama initiative, and to maintain contracts with private prisons? Is that a possibility? Could a new administration just say, eh, you know, that was Obama’s thing, we’re going to do something else?
SCHENWAR: Oh, I see what you’re saying. When you first asked that question I thought you were saying, should we elect a President Trump?
SCHENWAR: One word answer. Yeah. I mean, I think the one thing to really bear in mind with this is it is a plan. It’s not a directive that is forevermore, and it’s actually, it’s not ending private prisons this instant, it’s letting the contracts expire, which will happen over the next few years. And the next few years, obviously, is continuing into the new administration. So I think this is definitely something that we have to be continually vigilant about, as well as continuing to push for decarceration, continuing to push for decriminalization, and continuing to push for recognition of mass incarceration as a whole, and kind of the prison-industrial complex in a larger sense.
BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Maya Schenwar. Maya is the editor in chief of Truthout. She’s also the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work, and How We Can Do Better. We’ve been talking about the DOJ announcement, that they will phase out contracts with private prison operators. Maya, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.
SCHENWAR: Thank you so much.
BROWN: I’m Kim Brown, and you’re watching the Real News Network.