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The U.S. Justice Department has announced it wants to phase out its use of private prisons for housing federal inmates. The department says government facilities are cheaper and safer. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now. And, Carrie, give us some context here. Who will be affected by this decision to close private prisons?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A slice of the current federal prison population, Audie. There are about 193,000 federal inmates now. About 22,000 of them live in federal contract prisons. These are mostly men, low-security inmates so not a huge risk. And they're people who are here in the U.S. illegally. They live in one of 14 private contract prisons around the country. But Justice says we won't see the impact right away.
It's phasing out contracts with three companies over the next five years or so.
CORNISH: You spoke with the deputy attorney general today. What reasons did she give for this move?
JOHNSON: Sally Yates told me this move has been under consideration for some months now. But in the end, the case was clear. Here's what she had to say.
SALLY YATES: The fact of the matter is that private prisons just don't compare favorably to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of safety or security or the services that they offer to the inmates there. The Bureau of Prisons does a better job. And now with our decline in the federal prison population, we have both the opportunity and, I think, importantly, the responsibility to do something about it.
JOHNSON: So Sally Yates is talking there about the drop in the federal prison population. Twenty-five thousand inmates have left the prison population over the last few years because of changes in punishment and drug sentences. So there's a lot more room in these government facilities, and there may not be as big a need for these federal contract prisons.
CORNISH: And then there is the issue of safety and security concerns. What evidence did the Justice Department kind of base this decision on?
JOHNSON: The deputy attorney general told me safety was a huge priority for them. The inspector general at Justice looked at the 14 private contract prisons and a smaller group of facilities that were operated publicly. And he found a lot of alarming things, Audie. More assaults, more use of force, more contraband like cell phones in these private facilities, lots of understaffing in critical jobs like corrections guards and medical workers.
And the watchdog also pointed out a corrections officer actually died in one of these private contract facilities four years ago in Mississippi.
CORNISH: Now, in the end, how do you look at this in terms of the trend of private prisons? How, like, significant is this step by the Justice Department?
JOHNSON: So a lot of advocates are very excited today. I would offer this note of caution. This announcement does not mean the end of private prisons. It won't have much bearing, if any, on most people locked up around the country because they're in state and local facilities, not federal ones. And it also doesn't touch people locked up in federal immigration detention.
The Department of Homeland Security says it's going to continue on this path. Still, researchers are telling me it's kind of a big deal because it's part of this long conversation we've been having about mass incarceration and how we treat crimes like drug offenses that may not be the most violent or involve guns. Crime trends could change over time. And the Justice Department says it is reserving the right to change its mind.
And, of course, depending on who wins the White House next year or takes the White House next year, the Executive Branch could change its mind too.
CORNISH: In the meantime, what's the next step? What should we be looking out for?
JOHNSON: So slowly, DOJ is reducing the number of people in these private facilities. It's also pushing Congress to act. It says there's real need for lasting change here in federal crime and punishment. Only Congress by changing the kinds of sentences it imposes on people can make this happen for real and for permanent times.
CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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