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The Justice Department Used Shaky Statistics to Drop Private Prisons

The U.S. Department of Justice made headlines on Thursday by announcing it’s phasing out contracts with private prison companies. Shares of publicly traded incarceration firms Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group plunged. Liberal prison-reform advocates applauded.

But there’s a problem: fundamental flaws in the main source of data on which the DOJ based its assessment—that privately operated prisons provide less safety and security than publicly run lockups. That source, an 80-page report released earlier this month by the agency’s own inspector general, compared 14 so-called contract prisons with an equal number of facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The IG’s main conclusion: “… contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions.” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates picked up on that “safety and security” language in her Aug. 18 memo instructing the bureau to wind down outstanding contracts with private prison operators.

Unfortunately, the inspector general compared apples with oranges.

Before delving deeper into this social science fruit bowl, here’s some context. The Bureau of Prisons began contracting with privately operated prison companies in 1997, at a time of soaring inmate populations. The number of federal inmates in contract prisons peaked in 2013 at almost 30,000, about 15 percent of the total incarcerated by the BOP. In part because of changing policies meant to reduce incarceration rates, inmate populations have been moving downward for three years. As of December, contract prisons housed fewer than 23,000 federal inmates, about 12 percent of the total federal population. (Federal inmates are only a...