December 7, 2022
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National Recap: California Legislature bans private prisons

The California Legislature passed a bill that would ban the use of private prisons throughout the state. The ban would also apply to detention centers operated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in California. The bill will likely close down four large immigration detention centers that can house up to 4,500 inmates each. 

Private prisons are prison facilities run by private prison corporations whose services are contracted out by the government, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. When the government contracts a private prison, it makes payments per prisoner on a regular basis. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the U.S., has seen a 500% increase in profit throughout the last 20 years, according to The Equal Justice Initiative. 

Specifically, the bill aims to bar the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from creating or renewing contracts with private prisons beginning in 2020. It also seeks to bar the state from housing inmates in for-profit prison facilities. The latter guideline would take effect in 2028, giving the state an eightyear window to restructure inmate housing.

The bill was authored by California assembly member Rob Bonta. When Bonta originally proposed the bill, it applied to contracts between private prison companies and the state’s prison authority. In June, Bonta amended the bill to include ICE’s major detention centers in the state. Bonta said the measure aims to protect prison inmates from companies that are primarily motivated by the prospect of financial gains.

“They don’t care what happens to people when they return to their communities,” Bonta said. “We do.”

Historically, private prison owners viewed the state of California as one of their fastest-growing markets. The state increased its dependence on private prisons in 2009 after a federal court ruled that the state was violating inmates constitutional rights by keeping them in overcrowded facilities. In 2016, private prisons locked up approximately 7,000 Californians, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

However, throughout the last few years, the state has backed efforts to transfer inmates from private to public prisons. As of June, for-profit prisons held just over 2,000 of the state’s total inmates. 

The U.S. has a long and complicated history with private prisons. In the 1980s, the war on drugs influenced a dramatic increase in arrests throughout the country. When government facilities struggled to keep up with rising incarceration rates, private companies took advantage of the opportunity and began constructing for-profit prisons, according to The Sentencing Project.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people housed in private prisons rose 47%, compared to a 9% rise in general incarceration rates, according to The Sentencing Project. In 2016, private prisons incarcerated nearly 130,000 individuals throughout the country, which is 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. 

In 2016, former President Barack Obama’s administration enacted a policy to reduce the government’s reliance on private prisons. However, in February 2017, this policy was reversed by President Donald Trump’s administration. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the measure.