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Protests Brew Over Move To Phase Out Private Prisons

A private prison operator launched a formal protest this week that fuels criticism of the U.S. Justice Department’s plan to cut its use of for-profit correctional facilities.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced in August that federal government would scale back its use of private prisons, sparking a political issue.

Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said during the first debate with Republican Donald Trump that she would like to see the phase-out of private prisons at the state level as well.

“You shouldn’t have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans,” Clinton said.

More than 130,000 state and federal prisoners were housed in private contract prisons, according to 2015 Bureau of Prison statistics. State inmates in private prisons number about 108,000, while federal inmates housed in privately run facilities number 22,660, the statistics show.

While the majority of prisoners come from urban areas, correctional facilities tend to be located in more secure rural areas in red states.

The Justice Department's proposal to phase out private prisons grew out of a department report released in August that concluded contract prisons incur more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons. These incidents included lockdowns, contraband, inmate discipline and sexual misconduct.

The plan to scale down private prisons also comes as the number of federal prisoners declined from a peak of more than 219,000 in 2013 to under 198,000 as of December 2015. This is a result of revised sentencing guidelines and discharging of nonviolent drug offenders, according to the Justice Department.

Carl Takei of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project called the new Justice Department policy a victory.

"Phasing out the bureau’s use of private prisons will measurably improve the lives of tens of thousands of people who would have otherwise remain locked in these abusive, unaccountable, profit-driven institutions," Takei wrote on the ACLU's website. "The reform, long overdue, is the result of years of patient, persistent advocacy by criminal justice advocates."

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research group based in Massachusetts, takes a more pessimistic view.

"The focus on private prisons is an unfortunate distraction in the larger effort to reduce our prison populations," the institute's legal director, Aleks Kajstura, told AMI Newswire. "Private prisons are not really driving mass incarceration, and focusing on reducing the number of people incarcerated in a given facility is just playing a game of whack-a-mole. There are plenty of county jails that rent out bed space. For example, over 75 percent of beds in Louisiana's jails are rented out to the state, leaving in place the same kind of profit motive that is often associated with private prisons."

Six Republican Congress members whose districts include private prisons have questioned whether the shift of federal inmates from private prisons to Bureau of Prisons facilities - which could go on for more several years -- would result in safety and security risks, as well as overcrowding.

“We are also concerned with the impact this directive will have on the local communities we represent,” said the lawmakers’ letter to Yates and the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons, Thomas Kane. “In many of these areas, the contract prison is one of the largest employers, and citizens have few other job opportunities.”

On Monday, the Florida-based GEO Group Inc. filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office after the Bureau of Prisons downsized a request for bids on a major private prison contract. That contract reduction lacked a logical basis and allegedly violated federal procurement law, according to documents the company filed with the GAO.

GEO Group submitted a proposal in response to the original solicitation, but that contract was slashed this summer from one encompassing a maximum of 10,800 beds across several states to a request for 3,600 beds in facilities located only in Texas. The bid request covered the incarceration of illegal aliens convicted of crimes.

The company's protest does not attempt to attack the heart of the Justice Department's new policy but focuses on a single contract bid.

GEO Group, however, argued in its protest documents that the changes in the bid solicitation were substantial and fundamental. Under federal procurement regulations, the Bureau of Prisons now must cancel the request, according to GEO Group documents, and the GAO should require the bureau to issue a new solicitation at the previous level of 10,800 beds.

“We regret the need to file this protest, but the procurement was significantly changed in the middle of the process …” GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez told AMI. “We believe the procurement should be re-issued for 10,800 beds based on facts and data as to the actual bed needs for the housing of criminal aliens given the continued overcrowding levels in the federal prison system.”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman told AMI that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

GEO Group argues that the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, which Yates cited in her announcement, did not draw a valid comparison. The OIG report compared facilities and inmate populations that were not similar, the company’s documents said.

In addition, the OIG report shows that the private prisons studied were safer in many respects than some federal prisons, according to GEO Group. Rates of death, inmate fights and positive drug tests were all lower in the private facilities, company documents said.

GEO Group documents also included an analysis by the company’s executive vice president for contract administration, Amber Martin, that found the cost of operating prisons housing criminal aliens was 21 percent below that of comparable Bureau of Prisons facilities.

In her announcement about the phase-out of private prisons in the federal system, however, Yates said private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources. They do not save substantially on costs and, as noted in a recent report by the department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”