February 23, 2017; National Public Radio, “The Two-Way”
In a move that signals things to come, busy new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded the Justice Department’s commitment to reduce the use of private prisons. That commitment, as you may remember, was made toward the end of the Obama administration after the federal prison population had fallen by nearly a third due to updated sentencing practices. Investigations indicated that private prisons were less safe and more expensive, and offered inadequate services compared to those institutions run by the federal government. Also, in 2014, contracts with private prisons cost the federal government $639 million. So much for the efficiencies and effectiveness of privatization.
So why reengage, other than the obvious and ideological “law and order” rationale? Follow the money. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group are this country’s largest private prison corporations, which have already profited from billions in taxpayer money. Both are publicly traded companies that spend millions on lobbying for policies that will keep our prisons full.
This is hardly a hidden factor; once Sally Yates declared the severance of contracts, private prison stock prices plummeted. However, on the day following Trump’s election, those prices soared:
This shift reverses the visible decline after the current administration announced in August that it was withdrawing federal prisoners from private facilities. Acclaimed at the time by advocates for the elimination of private prisons, that decision was one element of a bipartisan move to reform the criminal justice system to reduce mass incarceration overall. But Trump’s plans to increase deportation activities and his “law and order” orientation toward crime have apparently given the industry a new lease on life. Trump’s uncompromising stance on immigration has an immediate solution in the use of immigration detention centers, 70 percent of which are run by private corporations.
For-profit prison companies “were likely to face negative headlines and persistent contract uncertainty under a Clinton White House,” Isaac Boltansky, senior vice president and policy analyst at Washington-based Compass Point Research & Trading, wrote after the election. “We expect a Trump administration to be more supportive given its focus on immigration and crime.”
As readers may recall, Sessions 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.” That pretty much sums things up in terms of any federal commitment to end mass incarceration. Many activists have long since shifted their reform focus to the states, which house many times the federal prisoner population and where most of the models for reform are being developed, but Sessions’ prediction of a greater need for cells is nothing short of heartbreaking.—Ruth McCambridge