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Az facilities not affected as Justice Dep't looks to end private prison contracts

The Justice Department will begin shifting away from using private prisons following a report by government auditors sharply critical of the practice.

But the move won't affect the more than a dozen private prisons in Arizona operated under contracts with the state and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo announcing the change, telling officials that when a contract with a private-prison company is about to expire, they should either decline to renew the contract, or substantially reduce its scope. 

The goal is "reducing—and ultimate ending—our use of private operated prisons," she wrote. 

"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities," Yates wrote. "They simply do not have 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 Deparment's Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security." 

The change comes just a week after the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General issued a review on private prison contracts and found that private prisons "incurred more safety and security incidents" per prison than comparable prisons run by the federal government's own Bureau of Prisons. 

The OIG report noted that in 14 institutions operated by three companies, including Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, Inc., and Management and Training Corporation, there were higher rates of assaults by inmates against fellow inmates and staff. The report also noted that in two facilities, inmates were improperly imposed in solitary confinement areas know as Secure Housing Units, or SHUs. 

Requests for comment from GEO Group and MTC were not returned.

Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CCA, said in an email that the facilities covered by the announcement comprise only seven perfect of CCA's business. Burns also said that this spring CCA won a re-bid for a contract with the federal government to expand "residential re-entry offerings," which Burns said, "help inmates prepare to successfully return to their communities."

Burns also said that the report from the OIG contained "significant flaws."

"The findings simply don't match up to the numerous independent studies that show our facilities to be equal or better with regard to safety and quality, or the excellent feedback we get from our partners at all levels of government," Burns said.

While Arizona is home to more than a dozen private prisons under contract with the state and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, none of the five facilities operated by the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons in the state are covered by a private contract. They will not be affected by Yates' announcement. 

"This is a good first step, but this change only covers 13 facilities," said Emily Verdugo, a program coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona. "This is really just a small portion of the facilities maintained by the federal government. Almost 60 percent of the profits earned by the private-prison industry comes from immigration detention, maintained by ICE and the U.S. Marshals." 

Verdugo also noted that ancillary industries, including bond and monitoring, continue to be covered by private-prison companies. 

While the Justice Department may be moving way from private-prisons, Homeland Security has continued to push for their use, including the creation of a brand-new facility in Dilley, Texas, that included a four-year, $1 billion contract that was pushed through by officials without the standard public bidding process. 

The new facility will hold asylum seekers, primarily women and children, who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, fleeing from rampant violence and poverty in Central America. 

The change does not affect the contracts with private companies managed by ICE where unauthorized immigrants are detained. 

Instead, a ICE spokeswoman said that the agency maintains its own facilities, and contracts with local, county, and state facilities, as well as private-prisons to "meet the agency's detention needs while protecting taxpayer resources." 

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ICE was also careful to note that it operates facilities under "several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement." 

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva joined with former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in praising the change. 

Grijalva called the change "overdue" and noted that last September, he and Sanders introduced the Justice is Not for Sale Act, which would have banned private prisons, end family detention by the Department of Homeland Security, and remove a mandate by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill 34,000 beds under contract with private-prison companies, including CCA. 

"It is not breaking news that these facilities that have fueled mass incarceration in our country are more costly, less effective and more dangerous than those run by the government," Grijalva said. "I’m glad that DOJ has finally recognized these facts, but their actions alone are not enough. Until DHS and state governments around the country break ties with these corporations, justice in this country will continue to be undermined by private profit motives, and innocent people will continue to suffer." 

Sanders said that the use of private-prisons has driven the large increases in mass incarceration rates, saying "It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth." 

"Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state," Sanders said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The logo for Corrections Corporation of America hangs over the front gate of a prison complex in Eloy, where unauthorized immigrants are held under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.