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Biden Signs Executive Order to End Corporate Prisons

January 27, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Washington. Vice President Kamala Harris listens at left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden issued an executive order Tuesday to end the Justice Department’s use of private prisons.

The order tells the Justice Department not to renew contracts with the corporations that incarcerate more than 120,000 people in the United States, or about 8.2% of the nation’s prison population.

It is one more example of Biden reversing Trump administration policies through nearly 40 executive orders he signed in the first week of his presidency.

“This is the first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration, that is less humane and less safe, as the studies show,” Biden said in a White House speech before signing the order. “And it is just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system.”

The number of inmates in private prisons dwindled further in the past year as coronavirus compelled judges to release many of them with convictions for non-violent offenses to home confinement. As a result, the Bureau of Prisons already was canceling some of the corporate contracts.

Biden’s order says there is “broad consensus” that mass incarceration creates hardships for society without improving safety.

“Privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs and resources,” the order says.

The Bureau of Prisons started hiring private companies to run prisons in the late 1990s to help manage overcrowding. Bureau of Prisons officials said states and Congress did not give them enough money to build more government-run prisons.

Shortly after they started operating, prisoner rights advocates said private prisons were associated with higher rates of inmate violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General reported in August 2016 during the last days of the Obama administration that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [Bureau of Prisons] institutions.”

The Justice Department responded with a revised policy to phase out private prisons. In addition to the safety concerns, Justice Department officials said private prisons were too costly.

A few months later, when Donald Trump won the presidency, the Justice Department changed policy again to reinstate private prisons.

During Trump’s 2016 campaign for president, he said during a televised town hall, “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.” 

The biggest private prison companies in the United States are the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group Inc., Management and Training Corporation and Community Education Centers.

GEO Group said in a statement that Biden’s order would not improve the prison system.

“Given the steps the [Bureau of Prisons] had already announced, today’s Executive Order merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic,” a statement from the company said.

Prisoner advocates described the order as a civil rights advancement rather than a political statement.

Biden’s executive order “validates something we’ve been saying for years: No one should profit from the human misery that is caused by mass incarceration,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Prison privatization increases the potential for mistreatment and abuse of incarcerated people, and this move by the Biden administration will start curtailing this insidious practice.”

The president’s order was one of several addressing civil rights he signed on Tuesday.

Others recommit the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty, reject discrimination against Asian Americans who face harassment because of the coronavirus pandemic that started in China, and direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take more aggressive actions to halt racial discrimination in housing policy.

On Wednesday, he signed executive orders designed to make climate change a “national security” issue and a heightened priority for the federal government.

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