Current Events

Future Uncertain for Texas Private Prisons as Feds Move to End Their Contracts

The Department of Justice conceded Thursday that prisons run by private corporations are less safe than those run by the federal government, and decided to phase out its contracts with the private contractors. Out of the 13 private prisons managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons – the agency responsible for all federal inmates – five are in Texas, far more than any other state.

The decision was announced in a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to Bureau of Prisons officials. Private prisons, Yates wrote, just don't offer inmates the same level of services and resources that federal facilities do. As an extra nail in the coffin, she added: “They do not save substantially on costs.”

But this doesn't mean all private prisons will shut down tomorrow. Instead, Yates directed officials to stop renewing contracts with private prison companies, or to at least “substantially reduce [contracts'] scope.” Those cuts have already started – within the next year, Yates said, at least three private prisons will stop housing federal inmates. Yates did not identify these prisons.

Texas's federal private prisons include Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility, located in Post; Big Spring Correctional Center, in (of course) Big Spring; Reeves I & II Correctional Institute and Reeves III Correctional Institute, both in Pecos; and the ironically named Eden Detention Center, in Eden Texas. In total, these facilities can hold 9,423 inmates. That's far more than any other state – most states, if they have a private prison at all, have just one facility that can only hold between 1,000 and 3,000 inmates.

There's no word yet on what may happen to Texans employed at these private prisons. But the plunging stock of GEO Group, the company that manages three of Texas's private prisons that have contracts with the government, isn't a good sign: It's dropped nearly 40 percent since the news broke Thursday.

“Notwithstanding today's announcement, we will continue to work with the BOP, as well as all of our government partners, in order to ensure safe and secure operations at all of our facilities,” read a GEO Group statement emailed to the Houston Press.

Many criminal justice reformers, who have long warned that private prisons are more interested in their profits than their inmates' quality of life, are celebrating the announcement as a victory. “When you ask a company to answer to its shareholders by locking people up, they're necessarily going to have to look at the bottom line,” said Rebecca Robertson, the ACLU of Texas's legal and policy director. “Then it's no longer about safety or justice or rehabilitation. Now it's about making money.”

The Department of Justice decision does not affect contracts between Texas and private prison corporations. As of the end of July 2016, more than 10,000 state offenders were housed in privately operated facilities in Texas.

These offenders are typically low-level, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark. “It's typically where they're receiving some intensive programming, so whether it be substance abuse programming, DWI, things of that nature.”

However, coincidentally, the state justice department today recommended closing a private prison: Houston's South Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, which can house up to 450 inmates. Those inmates would be absorbed by Kegans State Jail, a public prison also in Houston. Since 2011, the TDCJ has also closed two other private prisons, Clark said.

When asked whether concerns over private prisons' safety and cost motivated these closures, Clark said, “We look at a whole host of factors.” The recommendation to close South Texas, he said, was partially driven by budgeting issues.

Right now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has no plans to follow the federal government's lead and terminate all of its contracts with private prison corporations.
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Carter is the Houston Press fellow. A Seattle native, she graduated from Northwestern University and also has written for Elle, Los Angeles magazine and Ms. Magazine.
Contact: Carter Sherman