Resolution on Private Prisons


The Torah and the Jewish tradition that emerges from it insist time and again on justice in the halls of judgment: b’tzedek tisphot, “You shall judge with justice” (Leviticus 19:15). The Book of Exodus also teaches, “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it” (23:5). Rabbinic authorities understand this verse as instructing human beings to treat one another with respect, even when costly or the person of interest is an “enemy.” The pursuit of justice should not be intertwined with the pursuit of financial gain. In this spirit, more than fifty years ago, the URJ first committed to support measures “to modernize and humanize correctional procedures and institutions, with particular emphasis on alternatives to imprisonment.”[1] Other URJ resolutions have advocated for prison reforms that address injustices levied on account of race (1999), mental illness (2001), and citizenship status (2003). With these resolutions as our guide, for decades the Reform Movement has worked to address disparities and injustices in America’s criminal justice system, recognizing that the overcriminalization of Americans, particularly Americans of color, has harmed the fabric of our society and has failed to achieve its rehabilitative goals. As we stated in our 1999 resolution “aberrations that undercut fairness and justice harm the credibility and efforts of those agencies and personnel even as they erode respect for law and justice in America more generally.”

Today, although public and private prisons both experience challenges that must be addressed to ensure the just administration of justice, the growing use of private prison facilities raises particular concerns. Private prison facilities are used both in the criminal justice and the immigration justice systems, with resulting and related challenges. We have spoken in other resolutions about the importance of a just immigration system, including noting that enforcement of federal immigration law is the exclusive province of the appropriate federal legal authorities.[2] Our Movement actively works to free immigrants from both for-profit and government run detention facilities. This resolution focuses on the privatization of the U.S. criminal justice system, which has experienced a dramatic growth since the 1980s. Between 2000 and 2016 alone, The Sentencing Project found that the American private prison population increased five times faster than the total prison population.[3] At the end of 2017, 8% of 1.49 million Americans incarcerated in state and federal jurisdictions were held in private facilities, totaling nearly 120,000 people.[4]

The number of Americans held in private prisons has boomed despite decades of studies that show no cost savings as compared to government-run facilities and increased concerns about the quality and safety of private facilities.[5] Poor medical care, unsanitary conditions, and generally unsafe living conditions are well documented.[6] A 2016 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) report found “in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions.” Problems included higher rates of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.[7]

In August 2016, the United States Department of Justice began to eliminate federal contracts with private prisons.[8] However, in February 2017, the Department of Justice altered course, instructing the Bureau of Prisons to “return to its previous approach.”[9] Nonetheless, states including California, Illinois, Iowa, and New York have begun barring the use of private prisons.

The private prison industry also holds significant influence over criminal justice policy. As reported by the Justice Policy Institute, “Through campaign contributions, lobbying and building relationships and associations, private prison companies engage in an aggressive political strategy to influence criminal justice policies in ways that lead to more people in prison and more money in their pockets.” [10]

As compared to public facilities, private prisons are motivated largely if not exclusively by profit. The more inmates held in their facilities, the better the company’s bottom line. A 2010 annual report from the Corrections Corporation of America stated: “We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue.”[11] The company’s pursuit of more incarcerated individuals callsinto question the ways in which the profit motive contributes to the United States’ status as the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate: though only about 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated.[12] 

Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

1. Call for federal and state governments to phase out any current contracts with private prisons and detention centers;

2. Support legislation banning construction or implementation of new private prisons and detention centers;

3. Encourage congregations and congregants to participate in local, state, and federal efforts to close private prisons; and

4. Continue to work toward a more just criminal justice system overall.

Review The Resolution Proposal Q & A

[1] URJ Resolution. Crime. 1968.

[2] URJ Resolution on Protecting Individuals at Risk of Deportation from the U.S. 2017 ; URJ Resolution in Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the U.S. 2007.

[3] Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons. The Sentencing Project.

[4] “Prisoners in 2018.” US Department of Justice, April 2019. 

[5] Op. Cit. The Sentencing Project.

[6] Investigation Into Private Prisons Reveals Crowding, Under-Staffing And Inmate Deaths. NPR. August 25, 2016.

[7] Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons. Office of the Inspector General. U.S. Department of Justice. August 2016.

[8]Memorandum for the Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons. Subject: Reducing our Use of Private Prisons.” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, August 18, 2016.

[9]Memorandum for the Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons. Subject: Rescission of Memorandum on Use of Private Prisons.” Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions, III, February 21, 2017.

[10]Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies.” June 2011.

[11] Private Prisons and the Profit Motive. MSNBC, April 12, 2013.

[12] Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate Than Any Other Country. The Washington Post. July 7, 2015.