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Explained: Why does the US want to put an end to private prisons?

US President Joe Biden has described the move as "a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration".

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: January 28, 2021 7:20:50 am
President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Washington. Vice President Kamala Harris listens at left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden Tuesday signed executive orders addressing racial injustice, which included ordering the Justice Department to end its dependence on private prisons, signalling a major departure from the policies of former President Donald Trump.

Biden, who has said that the US government has to change “its whole approach” on the topic of racial equality, was elected in November after the country witnessed months of protests against systemic racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May.

Biden has described the move as “a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration”.

Mass incarceration in the US and racial bias

The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world– both in terms of incarceration per capita as well as the total number of people put in prison.

According to a 2019 PBS documentary, of the roughly 1 crore people imprisoned worldwide, more than 20 lakh are in the US. The country incarcerates 655 people per 1 lakh residents– higher than El Salvador (590), Turkmenistan (552) and Thailand (541).

The US first began to see its prison population soar in the 1980s at the height of the “war on drugs”, the so-called US government initiative aimed at tackling the illicit narcotics trade. These policies, which were continued by both Democratic and Republican administrations in the following years, resulted in significantly harsher sentences for drug offences, and disproportionately targeted African American communities.

The country’s prison population, which had remained below 5 lakh for decades until the 1980s, shot up to over 20 lakh in the 2000s. According to The Sentencing Project, more than 60% of people in US prisons today are people of colour, and Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned as white men, with Hispanic men being 2.7 times as likely.

Private prisons– pros and cons

As the rate of incarceration skyrocketed in the 1980s, state, local and federal governments were unable to manage the burden on their prison facilities. When these governments roped in the private sector to meet the new demands, it led to the expansion of what is today known as the “prison-industrial complex”.

Among the major beneficiaries of this phenomenon were private companies that came to own or manage prisons, starting in 1984 when the first such for-profit facility opened at the state level in Tennessee. Private companies argued that compared to the government, they could use newer construction designs and surveillance technologies to operate larger prisons with lesser employees, thus saving taxpayer money.

According to a 2018 report in The Week, private prisons went to become a $5 billion industry, incarcerating about 9% of all US prisoners combined. Two companies today dominate the market– CoreCivic and Geo Group– both of whom have provided monetary support to former President Trump.

Critics, however, questioned the benefits of allowing private players to run prison facilities, claiming that the motive of these companies was not to rehabilitate their prisoners, but to ensure higher profits. It has been alleged that because they are answerable to shareholders and not the public, such companies have a greater incentive at keeping more people locked up in order to get future contracts from the government.

National level politics

In 2016, the US Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General published a scathing report about private prisons, finding that private prisons at the federal level had more security violations per inmate compared to public prisons, with twice as many inmate-on-inmate assaults and 28% more inmate-on-staff assaults.

This led the Obama administration to announce that the federal government would be phasing out private prisons, in line with sentencing-reform policies that enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans.

This changed after the election of Trump, who had campaigned as a self-professed “law and order” candidate. After taking office, his administration reversed the Obama-era policies.

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What Biden has done

In his executive order signed on Tuesday, Biden has directed the attorney general to not renew contracts between the Justice Department and privately-run criminal detention facilities, thus returning the Department to the same position it had in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration, when Biden was Vice President.

Currently, the US has 1.52 lakh people serving federal sentences (as opposed to those in state and local prisons), of whom 14,000 (around 9%) are placed in privately managed facilities, according to an Associated Press report.

Biden’s executive order will apply to these inmates, and not to those in state and local privately-run prisons. The order also applies only to prisons, and not to privately-run federal detention centres, which are used to hold up thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Biden is now under pressure to put an end to these for-profit immigrant detention facilities. Experts say this could be a tougher decision to enforce, given that these facilities make up the majority of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) detention system.

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