Private Prison Phaseout Will Improve Guard Safety: Advocates

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By Stephen Lee

Aug. 24 — Prison guards across the nation will be safer on the job as a result of the Justice Department’s announcement that it will phase out the use of private prisons, labor advocates say.

“There’s greater potential for improving a situation with public sector employees and prisons in terms of transparency and access of information, versus a private sector prison, where it’s much harder to get access to that information,” said Mark Catlin, health and safety director at the Service Employees International Union.

“We still see horrendous problems in California and Washington state with these underfunded prisons and not enough staff, but it feels like we’ve got a better chance to deal with them,” Catlin told Bloomberg BNA.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents public-sector prison guards, hailed the government’s Aug. 18 announcement as a “huge victory.”

“The truth of the matter is, private prisons just aren’t as accountable as our government prisons,” Cox said in a statement. “The DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General said it best in their recent report: private prisons are less safe for both inmates and workers, and we have a great opportunity to reform our system for the better.”

Who’s Safer?

Government data paint a contradictory picture about whether government or private jails are safer.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2014, workers at government prisons were injured 2.4 times as often as those at private prisons. The BLS also says 20 workers have died at government prisons since 2011, but none have died at private prisons over the same period.

But the Bureau of Prisons said in a recent report that, in 2014, contract prison staff were assaulted 35 times per 1,000 inmates, compared to 21.3 times per 1,000 inmates at government prisons. In 2012, that discrepancy was 69 assaults per 1,000 inmates at private prisons versus 21.6 assaults per 1,000 inmates at public prisons.

Private jails also saw 77.9 guilty findings per month on charges such as murder, assault, sexual assault, possession of weapons or drugs, setting fires, fighting and participating in riots, compared to 64.7 guilty findings per month at public institutions, the report found. Weapons were found among prisoners 56 percent more often at government jails, the BOP said.

Catlin also suggested that the BLS figures could be skewed by the strong likelihood that injuries in private facilities are less likely to be reported, due in part to the lower union presence at for-profit jails.

Further, the finding by the BLS of no fatalities at private prisons doesn’t square with the BOP’s finding that at least one private correctional officer was killed during a 2012 riot at a Mississippi prison run by Corrections Corporation of America.

Systematic Failures at Private Jails

“While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a blog post announcing the department’s new approach.

As each private prison contract with Justice expires, the Bureau of Prisons will either decline to renew it or “substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population,” Yates wrote. Ultimately, the federal government will completely end its use of private jails, Yates wrote.

Bill Borwegen, the former longtime head of SEIU’s safety and health department, called Yates’ action a good move both for worker safety and government ethics.

“It is unseemly for companies to profit from incarceration of individuals,” Borwegen told Bloomberg BNA. “These companies underpay, undertrain and understaff their workforces to increase their profits. They also have a track record of lobbying state legislatures to maintain mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes to keep their private profit-making cells filled. This is clearly a government role no different than the police or firefighting.”

For-profit prisons hold 16 percent of all federal prisoners and 6 percent of state prisoners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prison Company Resists Allegations

The GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private-prison operators, said it strongly disputes the Bureau of Prisons report, which it called “severely flawed.”

"[I]t is factually incorrect to assert that privately operated facilities are less safe than BOP-operated facilities,” the company said in a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg BNA.

The BOP report “fails to account for significant differences in inmate populations housed in privately operated facilities, which house homogenous criminal alien populations, versus public facilities,” the company said.

Corrections Corporation of America didn’t respond to an interview request.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

For More Information

The Bureau of Prisons report, “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons,” is available at

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