In 2018, private prisons and private immigration detention centers received $2.32 billion in federal contracts — more than twice what they received under the Obama administration.
In an executive order Tuesday, President Joe Biden instructed the Department of Justice to cut its $2.3-billion, decades-old ties with the private prison industry — which some advocates see as a welcome relief after private prison spending by the U.S. government more than doubled during Donald Trump's time in office.
According to Biden, the move will "ultimately end the Justice Department's use of private prisons, an industry that houses pretrial detainees and federal prisoners."
The private prison industry emerged in 1984 under former President Ronald Reagan, when the "war on drugs" resulted in skyrocketing incarcerations and an inability to house soaring numbers of inmates.
The United States remains one of the few countries permitting the use of private prisons to house federal and state inmates, with some 198,000 prisoners currently housed in them — accounting for more than 8% of all prisoners nationwide.
But under Trump, the amount of federal funding siphoned into private prisons and immigration detention facilities skyrocketed. This was largely due to Trump's harsh immigration crackdown and family separation policy.
According to a Public Citizen analysis, private prisons and private immigration detention centers combined received $2.32 billion federal contracts in 2018. This number is more than twice the $942 million these private companies received in 2013 under the Obama administration.
The use of private prisons has drawn scrutiny for decades from both lawmakers and prison reform advocates for a number of reasons.
First, private prisons tend to be built more frequently in poor communities of color — and disproportionately house inmates of color. In an effort to cut corners, private prisons also have fewer employees, pay employees less, and provide significantly less training — 58 hours less — to employees than their public counterparts.
This, as well as higher inmate-to-staff ratios, has been shown to lead to 28% higher rates of inmate-on-inmate assaults, as well as nearly double the rate of inmate-on-staff assaults. Inmates in private prisons are also charged exorbitant amounts for phone calls, while private prison companies often fail to provide safe food or adequate medical care.
The corporate interests of private prisons also unduly influence criminal justice policy, according to prison reform advocates. Companies that own private prisons and private immigration detention facilities spend millions a year both donating to preferred candidates and on lobbying efforts for harsher sentencing laws and mass incarceration, as well as working to kill prison reform and immigration reform bills. In fact, the private prison industry donated more to the 2020 election than to any other in election history — with donations disproportionately going to Donald Trump, whose policies have historically benefited them.
John Dacey, executive director of Abolish Private Prisons, an attorney-helmed prison reform nonprofit organization that aims to use the court system to ban private prisons, said Biden's executive order is a step in the right direction.
"It is incredibly important to have the President of the United States say that using for-profit prisons is a bad idea and we're going to stop doing it," Dacey told the American Independent Foundation. "Just the power of the office and the national leadership setting that example is a very powerful and positive message."
He added that he hoped that over time, the Biden administration may also consider advancing such causes as decarceration, alternatives for incarceration for non-dangerous offenders, and decriminalization of some nonviolent crimes.
"We would also hope that this is the beginning of rolling back the powerful political interests that private prison corporations have on Capitol Hill and on state legislatures and the like. We would love to see business interests not influence criminal justice," Dacey said. "We would hope this is the beginning of phasing out the profit incentives from all levels of criminal justice. Profits should not be driving these things. Criminal justice policy should be driving these things."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.