Central Conference of American Rabbis Resolution on Private Prisons

This Resolution is based on a very similar resolution adopted by our partner organization, the Union for Reform Judaism, in 2019.

May 6, 2021


Torah and the Jewish tradition that emerges from it insist time and again on justice in the halls of judgment: b’tzedek tishphot, “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” (Exodus 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.”[i] The pursuit of justice should not be intertwined with the pursuit of financial gain.

In this spirit, as early as 1928, the CCAR resolved: “The right of society to protect itself against those who constitute social menaces implies also the solemn obligation to do everything possible to remove the causes which tend to make men [sic] criminals and to make punishment corrective in spirit rather than retributional.”[ii] In our 1999 Resolution on Race and the Criminal Justice System, we decried police brutality, racial profiling, sentencing disparity, and disproportionate minority confinement in the juvenile justice system.[iii] In our 2015 Resolution on Racial Justice, we again called for an end to racial profiling and for reform of police practices, and we focused on an end to mass incarceration by eliminating the focus on communities of color for drug arrests; revoking non-discretionary judicial restrictions such as mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes and you’re out” provisions; ending initiatives that push juveniles into the adult penal system of courts and prisons; and removing post-sentencing sanctions, including ineligibility for federal housing or subsidies.[iv]

Today, although public and private prisons both experience challenges that must be addressed to ensure the just administration of justice, private prison facilities raise 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 condemnation of “the punitive enforcement-only approach” to immigrants who lack legal documentation of their immigration status.[v] CCAR rabbis actively work to free immigrants from both for-profit and government run detention facilities.[vi] 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.[vii] At the end of 2017, eight per cent of the 1.49 million Americans incarcerated in state and federal jurisdictions were held in private facilities, totaling nearly 120,000 people.[viii]

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.[ix] Poor medical care, unsanitary conditions, and generally unsafe living conditions are well documented.[x] 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 both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults.[xi]

Additionally, the private prison industry 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.”[xii]

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.”[xiii] The company’s pursuit of more incarcerated individuals calls into 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 population.[xiv]

In August 2016, the United States Department of Justice began to eliminate federal contracts with private prisons.[xv] However, in February 2017, the Department of Justice reversed course, instructing the BOP to “return to its previous approach.”[xvi] More recently, in his opening days in office, “President Joe Biden … signed an executive order that will phase out the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons.”[xvii] In addition, “22 states—under both Democratic and Republican control—do not house incarcerated people in for-profit prisons.” Indeed, Vox reported that, in 2019 alone, three states—California, Nevada, and Illinois—banned or expanded bans on for-profit prisons.[xviii]

Therefore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolves to:

  1. Commend President Joe Biden for resolving to phase out to end the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ utilization of private prisons and detention centers;
  2. Call on states that have contracts with private prisons to end those contracts as expeditiously as legally permitted.
  3. Support legislation banning construction or implementation of new private prisons and detention centers;
  4. Encourage CCAR rabbis and the communities we serve to participate in local, state, and federal efforts to close private prisons; and
  5. Continue to work toward a more just criminal justice system overall.

[i] Tur HaAroch, Exodus 23:5.

[ii] “Human Rights,” Digests of resolutions adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis between 1889 and 1974, item 5, 1928, p. 83 (presumably of the CCAR Yearbook).

[iii] This sentence, taken from the CCAR Resolution on Racial Justice, June 17, 2015, refers to the CCAR Resolution on Race and the Criminal Justice System, May 1999, Race and the Criminal Justice System, Resolution on – Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccarnet.org).

[iv] CCAR Resolution on Racial Justice, June 17, 2015, CCAR Resolution on Racial Justice – Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccarnet.org).

[v] CCAR Resolution on Immigration Reform, June 2006, Immigration Reform – Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccarnet.org).

[vi] “Let Our Families Go: Rabbis to Lead Pilgrimage to TX/Mexico Border,” November 2018, Let Our Families Go: Rabbis to Lead Pilgrimage to TX/Mexico Border – Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccarnet.org).

[vii] Karin Gotsch and Vinay Basti, “Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons,” The Sentencing Project, August 2, 2018, Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons | The Sentencing Project.

[viii] E. Ann Carson, “Prisoners in 2018,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2020, Prisoners in 2018 (bjs.gov).

[ix] Gotsch and Basti.

[x] “Investigation into Private Prisons Reveals Crowding, Under-Staffing, and Inmate Deaths,” Fresh Air, NPR, August 25, 2016, Investigation Into Private Prisons Reveals Crowding, Under-Staffing And Inmate Deaths : NPR.

[xi] Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons,” August 2016, Review of Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons (oversight.gov).

[xii] Paul Ashton, “Gaming the System, How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Prison Policies,” Justice Policy Institute, June 22, 2011, Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies — Justice Policy Institute.

[xiii] Collier Meyerson, “Private prisons and the profit motive,” MSNBC, April 12, 2013, Private prisons and the profit motive (msnbc.com).

[xiv] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Yes, U.S. locks people up at rate higher than any other country,” The Washington Post, July 7, 2015, Washington Post.

[xv] Sally Q. Yates, Deputy Attorney General, “Reducing Our Use of Private Prisons,” Memorandum for the Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, August 18, 2016, Memorandum for the Acting Director Federal Bureau of Prisons (justice.gov).

[xvi] Jefferson B. Sessions, III, Attorney General, Rescission of Memorandum on Use of Private Prisons, Memorandum to the Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, February 21, 2017, Attorney General Memorandum Advising the Federal Bureau of Prisons That the Department Will Continue to Use Private Prisons (justice.gov).

[xvii] Char Adams, “Biden’s order terminates federal private prison contracts. Here’s what that means,” NBC News, January 27, 2021.

[xviii] Catherine Kim, “Private prisons face an uncertain future as states turn their backs on the industry,” Vox, December 1, 2019, A growing number of states are banning private prisons – Vox.