Phasing Out Private Prisons
During his first week in office, President Joe Biden on January 26 issued an executive order directing the Department of Justice (DoJ) not to renew any leases the agency has with privately-owned prisons, as part of what he termed the new administration’s campaign to change “its whole approach” towards racial equity.
DOJ’s Bureau of Prisons had already decided not to renew contracts with some private prisons, due to reduced numbers of inmates and release of some to home detention because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, more than 14,000 federal inmates are now confined in privately-operated facilities, or about 8.1 per cent of a total federal inmate population of nearly 152,000.
Biden called his order on private prisons “a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration that is less humane and less safe.” It essentially adopts the Obama administration’s from its later days, when the office of the DoJ Inspector General (IG) issued a report claiming private prisons were less safe and worse-run than federally-operated prisons.
It also echoes much of the criminal justice portions of the so-called Biden-Sanders Unity Platform, a 1,110-page document captured proposals endorsed during the presidential campaign by both Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among other things, this called on the nation to “eliminate private prisons and diversion programs.”
But, as director of the National Policy Council Susan Rice told an on-camera briefing, the new provisions on private prisons do not apply to detention facilities run by other agencies than DoJ — for example, the facilities detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
And scholarly critics were none too kind to the IG report, noting it failed to make a convincing case the public prisons were superior to private ones. Instead of improving prison conditions, the report mainly seemed to be arguing for moving inmates to federally-run facilities, regardless of how good or bad conditions might be there.
The large companies operating federal prisons, of course, savaged the new order — a GEO Group official termed it a “solution in search of a problem” — and many groups backing criminal reform gave it only lukewarm praise, saying they hoped for farther-reaching actions. The New York Times editorialized the flurry of executive orders “was no way to legislate,” and Biden’s order drew fire from many prison reform advocates as a sideshow that failed to address federal prisons’ most serious problems.
About the Author
Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.