Hard Time

Justice Department to end use of private prisons. Will the AIA ask architects to stop designing them?

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The Willacy County Regional Detention Center, a privately-owned and operated facility in Willacy County, Texas. (Image via fusion.net)
The Willacy County Regional Detention Center, a privately-owned and operated facility in Willacy County, Texas. (Image via fusion.net)

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced today that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will end its use of private prisons, citing concerns over the facilities’ safety and efficacy.

The decision applies to federal prisons only and comes after the department released an 86-page report that analyzed the operations of 14 contract prisons in seven categories for security and safety. The report found that, except for fewer (reported) incidents of sexual misconduct and positive drug tests, privately operated prisons have more security and safety lapses than those run but the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The report found that private prisons, moreover, had higher rates of inmate-to-inmate and inmate-to-guard assaults than at BOP facilities.

“[Privately-run 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,” Yates wrote in a DOJ memo released by the Washington Post. In an interview with the paper she added that “[the] fact of the matter is that private prisons don’t compare favorably to Bureau of Prisons facilities in terms of safety or security or services, and now with the decline in the federal prison population, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do something about that.”

The move comes as the federal prison population has declined from an all-time high of almost 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 today, mostly due to changes in drug sentencing guidelines, sentencing for low-level drug convictions, and clemency initiatives.

The prisons will not shut down all at once. Rather, the DOJ will review the contracts of 13 facilities operated by three private organizations as they come up for renewal over the next five years. The DOJ’s decision will impact a small number of prisoners, but its implications are huge. As of December 2015, private prisons housed around 22,660 federal inmates, 12 percent of the BOP’s inmate population. By May 1, 2017, the private prison population should be less than 14,200.



The Daily News‘ Shaun King, who advocates for ending mass incarceration, offered measured praise for the decision on his Facebook page:

Although problems at private prisons are well-documented, they are often drivers of economic development, and jobs-starved communities are loathe to see the prisons shut down. Already the BOP announced that it will reduce a new 10,800-bed contract by 7,200 beds. The BOP spent $639 million on private prisons in the 2014 fiscal year.

The DOJ’s decision could impact the architecture profession. In 2011, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility repeatedly petitioned the AIA to take a stance on the design of execution rooms and “spaces intended for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” in the U.S. and abroad. Although the organization’s code of conduct states that “members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,” this year, the AIA rejected a petition to discipline members who design solitary confinement units and death chambers. BOP prisons can contain solitary confinement facilities, so the DOJ’s decision may spur the AIA to take a more decisive stance on the ethics of prison design.

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