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Trump Administration Reversal on Private Prisons Signals Prioritization of Special Interests Over Public Safety
Sessions hints at return to mass incarceration
Tucson, AZ— Yesterday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will reverse course on an Obama Administration directive to phase out the use of private prisons in the federal prison system. The announcement directs the Bureau of Prisons to return to its previous policy and to continue using for-profit private prisons.
The original directive was based on a thorough assessment by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General that found that for-profit prisons contracted by the BOP were less safe and efficient than publicly-operated facilities. For example, the report showed that private prisons contracted by the BOP had higher rates of assaults, both on prisoners and staff, that private prisons improperly put prisoners into solitary confinement, and that private prison contracts did not save significant amounts of money.
This reasoned policy was undone with a four-sentence memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which addressed none of the substantial safety, cost, or efficiency issues raised by the assessment.
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions stated.
This reference to the “future needs of the federal correctional system” is a clear admission that the Trump Administration intends to return to the failed and costly approach of mass incarceration, despite a broad, bipartisan movement on the state and federal levels to reform sentencing policies and practices.
This is a particularly chilling signal to immigrant communities across the country, in the wake of several Executive Orders calling for increased criminalization and mass deportation of immigrants in the US. The vast majority of privately-operated federal facilities are those incarcerating immigrants, through contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Marshalls, and the Bureau of Prisons.
It is no coincidence that this policy shift will greatly benefit a key special interest group that has donated heavily to President Trump. Private prison watchdog group Grassroots Leadership reported, “a pro-Trump Super PAC received a $125,000 donation from private prison corporation GEO Group, and private prison stocks soared following November’s election. GEO has also hired former aides to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as lobbyists…Executives at Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded as CoreCivic) told shareholders on a call earlier this month that executive orders taken by the Trump administration would “significantly increase” detention capacity on the border.”
In Arizona, CoreCivic (formerly CCA) operates six different facilities. Only one of them holds a contract with the State of Arizona. The rest import their prisoners through a variety of contracts with both states and the Federal Government. Three of their detention centers contract with agencies under the Department of Homeland Security—including two that hold Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, and two that contract with the US Marshalls.
One of these facilities—the Eloy Detention Center—has had the highest number of deaths of detainees of any ICE facility in the nation.
“This decision clearly demonstrates that the current administration is more committed to producing profits for private prison corporations than to being good stewards of federal dollars or keeping our communities safe,” stated Caroline Isaacs, Director of the American Friends Service Committee Arizona office. “It is a violation of the trust we place in our public institutions and an abuse of the tremendous power our government has to deny individuals of their basic liberties.”