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Department of Justice directive to end use of for-profit prisons an important first step

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Kevin Rutledge, AFSC volunteers and staff of Catholic Peace Ministry vigil outside the Democratic Presidential Debate at Drake University in Des Moines. Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that it will end its use of for-profit prisons. The American Friends Service Committee welcomes this positive step forward. We, along with our allies, have been working for years to bring to light the problems with for-profit prisons, and we are glad the Department of Justice is finally taking action. Profiting from incarceration is immoral and has created perverse incentives that can and do exploit the vulnerable for financial gain. AFSC’s research in Arizona has shown that for-profit prisons are unaccountable, costly, unsafe, and a source of corruption.

However, this directive only applies to a very small number of for-profit prisons contracted under the Bureau of Prisons, and all but one of these hold people for immigration related offenses.  The decision will impact primarily noncitizens in federal prison but will exclude the vast majority of immigrants in private detention facilities run under the direction of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We urge the Department of Homeland Security to follow the Justice Department’s lead and end the use of for-profit prisons for civil immigrant detention as well. Additionally, this directive will not address numerous for-profit prison contracts with states. We urge all state and federal agencies to end their for-profit prison contracts as well.

Over 60% of immigration facilities are privatized, and for-profit prison companies have aggressively focused on going after immigrant detention contracts. Many of the abuses we hear about in for-profit facilities, including deaths, assault, and horrible abuse aimed at the most vulnerable, including transgender detainees, take place in immigrant detention.

AFSC is organizing a week of action August 22-26 to call for the end of the detention quota that mandates 34,000 prison spots for immigrants in detention facilities every day. As the stocks of for-profit prison companies Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, Inc plummet, we call on the Administration to extend this decision to end the use of private federal prisons to include immigrant detention as well. We also call on community advocates and leaders to join our week of action and help push for an end to private detention.

The writing is on the wall. Locking people up for profit, be it in the prison industry or through immigrant detention, is inhumane and not something our government can continue to do in good conscience and in good standing with both domestic and international legal norms. 

AFSC is heartened that for-profit prisons run under the Justice Department will come to an end, even as we continue the work to end mass incarceration, mass detention and the use of for-profit prison and detention facilities more broadly.