Private Prisons:

Cost Savings and BOP's Statutory Authority Need to Be Resolved

GGD-91-21: Published: Feb 7, 1991. Publicly Released: Mar 12, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the use of privately operated prisons and jails by federal, state, and local governments.

GAO found that: (1) some state and local governments used privately managed and operated prisons and jails to supplement their public facilities; (2) as of November 24, 1990, 24 government agencies contracted or planned to contract for prison or jail space for their adult general-inmate populations; (3) state correctional officials reported that privately managed and operated correctional facilities reduced overcrowding and provided prison space at a lower cost; (4) some state and local governments were reluctant to or decided not to use private prisons or jails because they believed that the benefits of privatization had not yet been proven; (5) the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) planned to contract to construct, staff, and manage a minimum-security facility for short-term alien prisoners; (6) BOP believes that more testing and experience are needed before operational questions about privatization benefits can be answered; (7) public policy questions concerning the extent to which the government should privately contract for the management and operation of prisons were difficult to resolve; (8) the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Marshals Service reported that they used private-sector facilities within their jurisdictions primarily to quickly ease overcrowding; (9) BOP lacked sufficient authority to contract to house adult general-inmate populations; and (10) more research and testing were needed on the benefits, limitations, and most effective applications of privatization.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No congressional action has been taken. BOP and Department of Justice (DOJ) legal offices have taken the position that BOP has authority. GAO concluded that this recommendation would not be implemented by DOJ. Recommendation is closed.

    Matter: Congress should grant BOP the explicit statutory authority to design and implement demonstration programs and projects to fully test and evaluate the benefits and limitations of privatization. Such legislation should specifically authorize BOP to contract for privately operated prisons for demonstration purposes and, among other concerns, should address the need for adequate controls in those contracts to preserve the rights of federal prisoners, ensure contractor accountability, and provide for effective government oversight.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: BOP officials do not believe they need NIJ assistance to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of privatization. BOP officials said they will do their own evaluation.

    Recommendation: Should Congress grant BOP authority to test privately operated prisons, the Attorney General should direct the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to assist BOP in determining the benefits and limitations of privatization. In this regard, NIJ should help design and build into BOP tests a research component that would allow for empirical evaluations to demonstrate privatization's advantages, disadvantages, and conditions for greatest potential.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice


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