What the DOJ’s decision to end private prisons means for Florida

Last week, the Department of Justice announced that it would stop contracting with private prison companies because it found that they were significantly lacking in resources, less safe, and less cost effective than their government-run counterparts

When a prison is privately contracted, it’s completely operated by a private company — that means everything from staffing to services like daily meals and medical care is taken care of by that company. Private prisons get paid per inmate, so the more prisoners, and the more beds in their building, the more money they make.

The private prison industry really took off in the 1980s, when the government was seeking cheaper solutions for managing the country’s packed prisons.

In the Justice Department’s memo about ending the use of private prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote that the federal prison population had increased by 800 percent from 1980 to 2013. “Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” the memo reads.

This was a pretty big deal, nationally. But it doesn’t mean much for Florida, which has the 10th highest rate of incarcerations nationwide.

Of the 103 federal prisons controlled by the Department of Justice, 13 are run by private companies. None of them are in Florida, though. The federal prisons in Florida are already publicly run and all the rest, whether public or private, are run by the state.

In sum: The US has federal prisons and state prisons. The DOJ decision only applies to federal prisons, so it won’t bring any changes to Florida. But it could start to change the conversation on the value and effectiveness of private prisons around the country.

At the federal level:

There are 211,000 inmates in US federal prisons, 22,104 of them in private prisons. These are the ones affected by the DOJ announcement.

Lots of people are putting pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to stop using private prisons for immigration detention facilities, too. There are 33,000 inmates in Immigration Detention Facilities, with nine of the 10 largest operated by private companies.

Two of the largest private prison companies, Florida-based GEO Group (who donates a bunch of cash to Sen. Marco Rubio) and the Corrections Corporation of America, get a big portion of their business.

Florida has nine immigrant detention centers, including the the Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade.  (In Florida, Krome is operated by Akal Security. The Broward Transitional Center is operated by GEO Group. These will continue to be privately operated.)

At the state level:

In Florida, the Department of Corrections oversees adult prisons. The Department of Juvenile Justice oversees prisons for inmates under the age of 18.

There are 56 state prisons, and seven are private. There are roughly 100,873 inmates, and more than 11,000 in private facilities. We’re not going to see anything change there because of this announcement.

All of 21 of Florida’s Juvenile Detention Centers are privately run. There are 1,306 beds in total. In FY 2009-10, 25,008 inmates went through the 21 centers. These also aren’t changing.

(There are also 67 county jails, which house inmates while they’re on trial or incarcerated a short amount of time aka less than one year.)

What decides whether you get put in a federal prison or a state prison?

Federal prisons house inmates who violate federal laws. State prisons house inmates who violate state laws.

If you commit a crime in one state, it’s a state crime. If you commit a crime across different states, it’s a federal crime. For example, a drug deal only in Florida is a state crime but multiple drug deals across Florida, Georgia, and New York is a federal crime. Also crimes that are against federal institutions are federal crimes — like IRS violations or mail fraud.

The Department of Justice will start phasing out their contracts with private prisons, hoping to cut the number of inmates in private prisons in half by May 2017. But state prisons and immigration detention centers are still business as usual.

“The DOJ announcement doesn’t have any direct effect in Florida, but it sends a powerful message that decision makers in Florida should pay attention to,” according to Adam Tebrugge, Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Who are those decision makers? Gov. Rick Scott and the legislators up in Tallahassee. If you want to see change on a state level, you know who to contact.