California to end private prisons and immigrant detention camps

Supporters of a new bill, expected to be signed this week, say private prisons contribute to a culture of incarceration.

California prison
Overcrowding prompted many state-run prisons to send inmates to private institutions [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

The United States‘s largest state prison system is moving to quit the practice of farming out inmates to jails run under contract by private companies, following a nationwide decline in the for-profit incarceration business.

California Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign legislation this week designed to effectively ban private, for-profit corporations from running prisons or immigration detention facilities.

Sponsors of the measure, which was introduced in December, say it will end a brief but hapless experiment in privately outsourced incarceration begun as a means to ease overcrowding – an endeavor Newsom branded an outrage when he took office in January.

Supporters of the bill say private prisons, driven to maximise shareholder profits, lack proper oversight and incentives to rehabilitate inmates, and have contributed to a culture of mass incarceration by making it cheaper to lock up people.

They point to research cited in a 2016 US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report that found private prisons spend less on personnel – and are less safe – than public institutions.

“This is a total and complete failure, and it’s hurting and abusing Californians,” said state assemblyman Rob Bonta, a chief author of the bill.

The facilities at stake are low-security lockups operated by one of two leading US private prison companies, Florida-headquartered GEO Group or Tennessee-based CoreCivic.

Defending their business model, the companies say they provided a vital service when detentions in California’s prisons more than doubled the system’s capacity, sparking lawsuits that led to court-ordered cuts to inmate populations.

“For 10 years, we provided safe, secure housing and life-changing re-entry programming for inmates that had faced extreme overcrowding,” CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said.

Separately, GEO Group cited its record as “an innovator in the field of rehabilitative services” and said the bill worked against the state’s goal of lowering inmate recidivism.

Significant loopholes

Inmate advocacy groups say the legislation does not go far enough, pointing to what they call significant loopholes, including an exemption for facilities that provide “educational, vocational, medical or other ancillary services” to inmates.

“I cannot think of any prison that does not provide those services,” said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group.

Several states, including New York, Illinois and Nevada, have adopted similar bans on private prisons, and nearly half of all states have no such facilities, Gotsch said.

The California bill sets the stage for the three remaining private prisons in the state, collectively housing about 1,400 inmates, to close four years from now, when their contracts with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expire.

Perhaps more significantly, the federal US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency next year stands to lose four privately-run detention facilities in California – facilities that hold roughly 4,000 people -unless the ban is challenged in court.

ICE has not taken a public position on the bill. But if the measure were adopted, immigrant detainees would simply be transferred to facilities outside California, the agency said in a statement.

The impact “would be felt almost exclusively by residents of California, who would be forced to travel greater distances to visit friends and family in custody,” ICE said.

The average daily population at issue in those facilities accounts for less than a tenth of the 52,000 detainees ICE is holding nationwide, it said.

Small fraction

The California bill, which secured its final passage by the state legislature last month, bans any new or renewed state contracts with private, for-profit prisons, starting in January.

Four detention facilities privately operated for ICE would be put out of business even sooner, when their contracts with the federal government expire next year, Bonta said.

California had already been moving in this direction, terminating in June its contact with a privately-run correctional centre in Arizona – the last of several such out-of-state facilities – and last month closing a 700-bed facility in McFarland, California, near Bakersfield.

The state’s share of inmates in private facilities is a small fraction of its total prison population of nearly 126,000.

By comparison, Texas, which became the first US state to outsource incarceration to private companies in 1985, had far more inmates than any other state in for-profit facilities in 2017. The number came to nearly 13,000, or 7.8 percent of its total, said Gotsch of the Sentencing Project.

Source: Reuters