Reversing yet another Obama administration decision, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that the federal government would resume the use of private, for-profit prisons.
Only six months ago, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates had asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out its use of the controversial prisons by no longer renewing contracts. The directive affected 13 private prisons across the country that housed roughly 22,000 inmates. Nearly half of those inmates were housed in Texas at five private prisons.
"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities," wrote Yates, who was fired by President Donald Trump after she directed the Department of Justice not to defend Trump's travel ban. "They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
That decision was largely based on the inspector general's findings that private prisons had higher rates of assaults against both inmates and guards, had eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated every year, and a slew of alarming security incidents on their records — including various riots at prisons in Texas. Given changing attitudes about mandatory minimum sentences and lengthy incarceration for drug crimes, Yates also noted that the federal prison population has been on the decline, making them less necessary. While tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and '90s caused the prison population to increase 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, Yates noted the population dropped from 220,000 to 195,000 in the past three years.
But on Thursday evening, Sessions appeared to write off these findings as insignificant. In a one-paragraph memo, he wrote:
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system. Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”
The decision is largely in line with Sessions's approach to criminal justice in the United States. The Alabama Republican has long been a proponent of the War on Drugs and an opponent of marijuana legalization, and has linked legal weed to increased use of cocaine and heroin. While he has not gone as far as endorsing mandatory minimums, he has criticized the Obama administration's fewer drug prosecutions and said they should be increased.
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Which is all very good news for the for-profit prison industry. As Fast Company reported, in just a few hours after the announcement, CoreCivic's stocks jumped three percent.
Private prisons have long been controversial given that most contracts require them to fill a "bed quota": The more people incarcerated for longer, the more profit the prison companies make. This means there is no incentive to release inmates on parole for good behavior, and every incentive to incarcerate them for as long as possible. Mother Jones investigative reporter Shane Bauer documented this problem extensively in a five-part series, in which he went undercover as a corrections officer for Corrections Corporation of America last summer (CCA changed its name to CivicCore soon afterward). In one case, Bauer reported, an inmate lost 30 days of good time for using a broom to sweep up an area during the wrong time of day — a prison-stay extension which amounted to $1,000 savings for CCA.
“Today’s announcement is yet another edict from this administration that undermines civil rights for incarcerated people and criminal justice reform efforts,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “This administration appears to be more interested in lining the coffers of its friends at private prison corporations than promoting commonsense policies that would reduce the incarcerated population and close troubled prisons.”
As the Washington Post reported, the private prison industry donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. One such $100,000 donation was sent in from private-prison giant GEO Group just one day after Yates announced they would be discontinued.