LOUISVILLE (PNS) – The Justice Department’s recent decision to end the use of private prisons is welcome news to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has argued against the use of these facilities for more than a dozen years. The department made the announcement after concluding private prisons were not as safe or effective as those run by the government.
“The decision of the Justice Department to end its relationship with private for-profit corporations in the housing and handling of prisoners will bring to an end a practice that our General Assemblies have condemned as inappropriate and demeaning,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA). “The administration of justice for criminal offenders is clearly a function of government and should not be an opportunity for private corporations to profit financially.”
Nelson says money could be saved by reforming drug laws and rehabilitating as many inmates as possible.
In a memo announcing the decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said privately operated prisons were not providing the same level of services and programs as government run facilities and were not as cost-effective. The memo said there are currently no plans to terminate existing contracts with private facilities, but authorities say all contracts will come up for renewal over the next five years.
“Our General Assembly policy strongly affirms the actions of the DOJ,” said Chris Iosso, coordinator for the church’s Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy. “This action is consistent with the church’s explicit witness since 2003 and the spirit of our concerns since 1910.”
The church has a long history of speaking out for restoration and restitution where possible, rather than punishment alone. In 2003, in response to an overture from Greater Atlanta Presbytery, the 215th General Assembly called for the “abolition” of for-profit private prisons, based on initial studies of staffing and management weaknesses. While agreeing that offenders should be “dealt with firmly and justly for their own good and the protection of society,” the 2003 resolution also stated that they should not be rendered outcasts from society.
The resolution invoked statements from the 1910 and 1915 General Assemblies that the “ultimate goal of the criminal justice system should be restorative justice,” addressing the hurts and needs of the victim, offender and the community.
Stricter sentencing guidelines and an uptick in drug-related crime is believed to have driven the increase in the prison population and the costs associated with housing them. Yates reports that the federal prison population “has begun to decline, from nearly 220,000 inmates in 2013, to fewer than 195,000 inmates today.” She attributes the decline in numbers to a change in sentencing guidelines, new charging policies for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, and the Administration’s clemency initiative.
The DOJ Office of the Inspector General issued a report showing the Bureau of Prisons spent approximately $639 million on private prisons in 2014.
“The church does not demonize this industry, some of which has tried to provide opportunities for faith-based recovery, for example,” Iosso said. “Yet our Calvinism distrusts the lack of public accountability for the protection of inmates’ rights. I myself taught courses in a maximum security prison for several years. Prisoners’ food, safety and shelter are not corners that should be cut. The lack of meaningful rehabilitation only adds to the problem.”
Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works to end prison profiteering and reduce reliance on criminalization and detention through direct action, organizing, research, and public education. In a press release, Executive Director Bob Libal called the decision historic. “The DOJ’s decision to phase out its use of troubled for-profit private prisons may be a turning point for an industry that has continued to win federal contracts despite well-documented operational problems.”
Gail Tyree, elder and past campaign director and organizer with Grassroots Leadership and member of the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network is among those applauding the DOJ’s decision. “I am very happy to hear the news and look forward to the day when this same decision trickles down to the state and local level.”
While church advocates affirm the Justice Department’s decision, they believe more needs to be done.
The decision only pertains to contracts held by the Bureau of Prisons, not those held by the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. But Susan Krehbiel, mission associate for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, is hopeful.
“We urge the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit in eliminating the use of for profit contracts in immigration detention,” said Krehbiel. “We are not surprised by the findings of the DOJ as to the treatment of prisoners, given the inherent conflict of interest in using for profit prisons, who by definition must prioritize serving their own bottom line above serving the public good.”