DOJ walks back guidance discouraging use of private prisons

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017, in Washington.

Story highlights

  • A DOJ official said the Bureau of Prisons has 12 private prison contracts
  • The Justice Department said the move will increase the bureau's flexibility in housing inmates

Washington (CNN)The Department of Justice has rescinded guidance from August that discouraged the use of private prisons.

"This will restore (the Bureau of Prison's) flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs," the Justice Department said in a statement.
In August, then-deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed the Bureau of Prisons to reduce its use of private prison contracts. In the August memo, she said private prisons had been used to house a prison population that had grown 800% between 1980 and 2013.
But, she said, the population is now on the decline, from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 in 2016.
A DOJ official said on background Thursday that the BOP has 12 private prison contracts, housing approximately 21,000 inmates.
In a new memo dated February 21 and released for the first time on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that the Yates memo "changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the bureau's ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system." He directed the bureau to "return to its previous approach."
"This will restore BOP's flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs," the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker was quick to speak out against the change in policy.
"The Trump administration's decision to reverse course on existing policies designed to gradually end the use of private prisons is a major setback to restoring justice to our criminal justice system," Booker said in a statement. "The Bureau of Prisons' own inspector general has found that privately-managed prisons housing federal inmates are less safe and less secure than federal prisons, and these facilities have seen repeated instances of civil rights violations. Attaching a profit motive to imprisonment undermines the cause of justice and fairness."