President Joe Biden’s executive order to eliminate government contracts with private prisons, stemming from a campaign promise to enact criminal justice reform and to reduce mass incarceration, is being met with pushback from those in the industry.
Critics say the move is largely a “political statement” that fails to get to the root of the issue, since private-sector contractors house only a small fraction of the total number of federal inmates.
The executive order carries a litany of negative consequences ranging from job losses, other effects in communities where the facilities are located, and the potential for federal prison populations to overflow, the critics argue. Supporters of the order say it helps to combat racial injustice and racial equity. Before signing the order, Biden remarked that “the nation is ready to change, but government has to change as well.”
Leonard Sipes, a retired federal senior public affairs specialist who runs the website CrimeinAmerica, said private prisons save the federal government money since they don’t employ federal employees. Private prison companies have the resources to build new facilities, something the federal government finds challenging, he added, noting that Biden’s move could have dangerous implications.
“The Bureau of Prisons is massively overcrowded,” Sipes told The Epoch Times. “This [order] will stretch resources to their limit. The Bureau of Prisons is going to release offenders—they have no choice.”
However, experienced employees in the bureau who are there for the long run “tend to be savvy problem solvers who make a prison run efficiently,” said Sipes, who has 50 years of criminal justice experience, mostly in state and federal corrections.
“Considering the immense complexity of prisons, having experienced long-term employees is an obvious plus that you don’t get in the private prison system,” he said.
Under Biden’s executive order, the attorney general was ordered not to renew Justice Department contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. Most of the country’s private prisons are run by three companies: CoreCivic, GEO Group, and Management and Training Corp. (MTC)
Biden’s executive order is a “solution in search of a problem,” a GEO Group spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
GEO, a real estate investment trust, has for more than three decades provided facilities under a private-public partnership with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The spokesperson said that during this time frame, the company’s sites, which are more modern than the generally older government-run prisons, “have helped the BOP meet the significant overcrowding challenges facing the federal prison system.”
The executive order “merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and a negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
“Additionally, limiting the federal government’s options to deal with potential overcrowding challenges in the future could result in worsening and unsafe conditions for the men and women in federal custody.”
There are roughly about 14,000 inmates currently housed in private prisons, which comprise only about 9 percent of the total federal prison population, according to BOP data.
There’s already been a recent decline in federal prison populations due in part to the pandemic, and the BOP had already announced steps over the past four months to not renew expiring contracts with private operators, the spokesperson said, who questioned the need for the order.
Most of the inmates in private prisons are mostly adult males who are serving short sentences, and illegal immigrants. The sector was born in the ’90s to help stem overcrowding in prisons, according to a 2016 DOJ OIG report.
“To help alleviate overcrowding and respond to congressional mandates, in 1997 the BOP had begun contracting with privately operated institutions, often referred to as “contract prisons,” at first on a smaller scale and later more extensively, to confine federal inmates who are primarily low security, criminal alien adult males with 90 months or less remaining to serve on their sentences,” the report stated.
MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said while the company applauds the new administration’s focus on criminal-justice reform and reducing the number of people who are incarcerated, it believes the decision to phase out public-private partnerships in corrections “does not move us in that direction.”
“Blaming high incarceration rates on contractors is irresponsible because contractors have no say as to what laws are enacted and who is ultimately incarcerated,” Arnita told The Epoch Times via email. “MTC has effectively prioritized programs which prepare offenders for re-entry and reduce the reoffending rate. MTC has never advocated for any law or policy which would imprison more people or extend the sentences of those who are.”
Headquartered in Utah and employing nearly 10,000 people, MTC operates 23 Job Corps centers, 22 correctional facilities, 12 prison and detention medical departments, five detention centers, one probation and parole contract, and one workforce development site worldwide, according to its website.
If Biden’s executive order was truly about reducing the number of incarcerated people, it must address the services, programs, and rehabilitation efforts provided in government-run correctional facilities, Arnita said. Banning the private sector from providing services to the federal government also will have a negative effect on the people within their care, he said.
“The private sector brings innovation and competition which results in better services at all federal correctional facilities including safety & security, medical care, education, vocational, substance abuse, and rehabilitation.”
The move to gradually phase out private prisons was begun by the Obama administration, which in August 2016 planned a gradual phase-out of private prisons by letting contracts expire.
The Trump administration, however, had different plans, and in early 2017, reversed the order under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions argued the move impaired the government’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal prison system.
Any assertion that a company or the private prison sector in general is responsible for the rate of incarceration or detention is false, according to Steven Owen, CoreCivic’s vice president of communications.
“Under longstanding policy, we don’t lobby on any policies, regulations, or legislation that impact the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention,” Owen told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“Every day, CoreCivic helps nearly 1,500 inmates learn the life and vocational skills they need to find and keep employment once released,” he said. “In 2014, we made commitments to strengthen reentry programming unprecedented for the public or private sector.”
CoreCivic has provided facilities for the BOP for more than two decades, along with their other federal, state, and local partners in the 21 states they currently operate in.