Reviving an Obama-era push to phase out the use of private prisons, President Biden on Tuesday signed an executive order directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) not to renew its contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, as part of a slew of actions geared toward racial equality.
The executive order directs the attorney general to create no new contracts with private prisons, but only applies to Department of Justice facilities, according to Biden’s domestic policy advisor Amb. Susan Rice.
This means that the order will impact the 12 private prison facilities housing roughly 14,000 inmates that are currently contracted by the DOJ, but not private detention centers contracted by states or other government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security.
A total of 116,000 prisoners were held in private detention facilities in the U.S. in 2019, so those under the DOJ’s domain make up just a small portion.
“This is the first step to stop corporations profiting off incarceration that is less humane and less safe,” said Biden, adding: “It’s just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic plans in our criminal justice system.”
Biden also signed three other executive orders relating to racial discrimination, including a commitment to Native American tribal sovereignty, a condemnation of anti-Asian bias, and a review of Trump administration policies that undermined protections under the Fair Housing Act.
While some critics have pointed to the large proportion of facilities that won’t be impacted by this executive order, Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization, emphasized the challenge of standing up to private contractors like GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation, and CoreCivic that have spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions to state and local officials. “I think eliminating the perverse profit incentive that these companies introduced into the system and addressing their massive political giving is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Harris.
The Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing private sector contractors like CoreCivic, GEO Group and MTC, blasted the executive order as a “misguided attempt to blame longtime government contractors for a ‘mass incarceration’ problem they actually play zero role in driving,” citing the fact that private sector contractors house just 9% of federal inmates. “This EO and related efforts can also carry serious negative unintended consequences, including worsening conditions for incarcerated men and women, who may as a result be shunted off to overcrowded state and local jails that are not held to the same high standards as federal facilities,” reads a statement from the group sent to Forbes.
Private prisons have long been criticized by advocates as a poor substitute for government-run facilities. Former President Barack Obama introduced a plan to gradually phase out private prisons by scaling back contracts or allowing them to expire in the final months of his presidency. However, the Trump administration was quick to reverse this action, with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions directing the federal Bureau of Prisons to “return to its previous approach.”