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The Reality of Private Prisons: Discipline, Safety, and Misconduct

The U.S. Department of Justice has announced within recent weeks that it would gradually discontinue the use of private prisons. This decision comes after the Justice Department released a report that outlined the reality of prison privatization a short time earlier.

In brief, the DOJ report found that contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) counterparts in almost all eight categories examined, including reports of incidents, inmate discipline, and sexual misconduct among others. 

The report determined that BOP oversight of contract prisons wasn’t sufficiently met to ensure that federal inmates’ rights and needs were protected when housed in private facilities. 

Mass Incarceration and Privatization

When the BOP began contracting private services and facilities in 1997 to address overcrowding and additional congressional mandates post-1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, privatization was considered a cost-saving measure. In reality, annual expenditures for contract prisons have gradually been increasing over time. Between 2011 and 2014, analysts estimated that costs increased by $77 million from $563 million to $639 million, respectively. 

However, scant evidence is available regarding which prison system is more cost effective: public or private. BOP data collection differs from that of private facilities, which can make methodologically sound cost comparisons difficult. Studies have shown mixed results. The primary concern of the DOJ does not lie in cost effectiveness; the concern lies within for-profit prisons’ ability and willingness to protect inmates’ civil and human rights equally as well as their federal counterparts.  

Many states have had privatized facilities since the 1980s and many contract private companies to provide medical, food, and transportation-related services. The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency notes that the use of private prison contractors has raised concerns of public safety, transparency, and union busting. 

The Future: Private Contracting in Michigan

In 2005, the state shut down its only private prison in Baldwin for reasons similar to those found in the DOJ report. However, in April of this year, the Michigan Senate voted to shutdown two other state prisons and send inmates to the GEO Group, Inc. correctional facility in Baldwin. The plan, introduced by State Senator John Proos, R-St. Joseph, would be considered a cost-saving measure but ultimately could cost state employees jobs.

Additionally, the state continues to contract much of its communication and food related services in state prison facilities with private companies, though not without concern.

The state canceled its three-year $145 million contract with Aramark last year due to food contamination and contractual issues, including overcharging the state for what was termed as “ghost trays.” An Aramark employee was also arraigned and charged with trying to hire an inmate to assault another inmate at the Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, allegedly offering to bribe the inmate with tobacco products (which are forbidden in federal prisons). The state has since switched to Trinity Services Group, a Florida-based private food service provider, which has also been the subject of criticism. 

Earlier this year, over 1,000 inmates at the Kinross Correctional Facility sparked the peaceful protests of inmates statewide over the quality of the food being served by Trinity Services.  Some inmates claimed that they were being shorted the required 2,600 calories a day.

In light of the federal announcement, it would be surprising if the state followed through with the legislative proposal to contract with GEO Group, Inc. In Baldwin, however, the fate of private contracts for food, communication, transportation, and medical services is less clear.