'As many people incarcerated as possible.' How the government got in the private prison business, and why it's getting out

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — President Biden recently ordered the Department of Justice to end contracts with federal private prisons in an effort to address racial inequity in the country.

Dr. Caitlin Taylor, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at La Salle University says the move is getting mixed reactions.

“On one hand people are saying this is progress, that we should see this as a move in the right direction because private prisons are unethical and immoral,” Taylor says.

“On the other hand we can say that this decision is pretty insignificant, mainly because not one person is going to go home to their families or to the community as a result of ending private prison contracts.”

Currently in the United States, 2.3 million people are incarcerated. Of those people, 225,000 are in federal prisons and 120,000 are in private prisons.

Taylor says through the 1990s and 2000s the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by 1600%. As of 2020, less than 9% of all prison beds in the country are in private prisons.

“The government is contracting with a business who makes money by ensuring they have a ready pool of people to incarcerate.”

The first private facility, an immigration detention center, opened in Texas in 1983. After that, private companies said they could run prisons better and more cost effectively.

Taylor says that can be true, but only “because they offer fewer rehabilitation programs to people incarcerated so there's fewer access to things like job training or substance abuse treatment, healthcare is even worse, and the other way they save money is because they offer guards less training, fewer benefits and lower salaries.” She also says the recidivism rates are higher.

Pennsylvania has one private jail — the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, which is ending its contract with GeoGroup, one of the leading private companies in the industry.

Taylor says that’s a pretty big deal locally. “Instead of waiting for a five year contract to end, they took the financial hit and ended the contract part way through it. That would probably produce great gains immediately but with a greater cost to taxpayers.”

Several years ago the Obama administration had turned its focus on phasing out its use of private prisons, a move the Trump administration axed in 2017. Taylor has two suggestions, now that President Biden’s attention is turned back to the issue of privatized incarceration.

One is to reverse the 1994 crime bill he once sponsored, while giving states financial incentives to reduce prison populations. The other: sentencing reform, and not just for drug offenses.

“If we really want to be serious about reducing the size of our historically unprecedented prison population, then that means we need to tackle sentencing reform for violence offenses as well.”