3 Things Black America Needs To Know About Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Private Prisons

Written by Ann Brown
private prisons
3 Things Black America Needs To Know About Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Private Prisons Photo: Impact Sports Prison Ministry

President Joe Biden ordered the Justice Department on Jan. 26 to stop renewing contracts with privately run prisons, but this move isn’t what it seems.

Biden’s just-signed order basically reverts the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration, The Associated Press reported.

“This is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration,” Biden said on Tuesday.

There are more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately-managed facilities, but they represent just a fraction of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates incarcerated, AP reported.

Hannah Riley, communications director at the Southern Center For Human Rights, tweeted, “Biden’s executive order on private prisons is just reviving an Obama-era policy enacted by then deputy AG Sally Yates. It doesn’t impact mass incarceration at all; doesn’t impact our heinous immigrant detention policies. Doesn’t do much at all!”

Here are three things Black America needs to know about Joe Biden’s executive order on private prisons.

1. Private prisons will still be used

While the order may end the federal use of private prisons, states can still use them. They will also still be used for immigration detention. The order does not end the federal government’s reliance on privately-run immigration detention centers, according to David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

“The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises,” Fathi told AP.

Civil rights activist Shaun King tweeted, “To be clear, the Biden Administration DID NOT end private prisons today. Not even federally. 1. Private federal immigration detention centers will continue. 2. Most private prisons are state based and will continue. Biden ended a tiny number of federal contracts.”

Private prisons have been preparing for this move by the Biden administration as it was one of Biden’s campaign promises.

Private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic were taking note when Biden said back in October on the campaign trail that people who use drugs should be sent to centers built for mandatory rehabilitation, instead of jail. So GEO Group and CoreCivic could offer such centers.

Private prisons are looking at other streams of revenue. “Government partners have been increasingly looking for alternatives to incarceration, including expanding residential and non-residential services,” CoreCivic spokesperson Steve Owen told The Marshall Project. “Our commitments to reentry and reducing the national crisis of recidivism reflect that we are part of the solution, though not the only one.”

Of course, corrections and detention will continue to make up the bulk of both companies’ bottom line. But even if their federal contracts end, GEO and CoreCivic make money by providing detention facilities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And “alternative business sectors are all growing while the old core business stays flat or decreases,” The Marshall Project reported.

Yamiche Léone Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, tweeted, “An important note: Biden’s EO to not renew private prisons only applies to Department of Justice facilities and not to the Department of Homeland Security’s detention facilities which includes privately operated immigration detention centers.”

Even though many companies such as JP Morgan have divested in private prisons and federal contracts, GEO Group and CoreCivic secured multiple 10-year contracts with ICE in 2020, The Marshall Project reported.

“The federal government, and certainly ICE, can’t stop using private prisons tomorrow, it’s going to have to be over time,” said the ACLU’s David Fathi, according to The Marshall Project. “So if nothing else, the private companies have some time to adjust to the new world.”

2. Trying to reverse his prison legacy?

The 1994 Crime Bill that Biden helped draft for the Bill Clinton administration led to the mass incarceration of predominantly Black people and benefited the private prison system.

It created tough new criminal sentences and incentivized states to build more prisons and pass truth-in-sentencing laws, according to The ACLU blog. During the 2020 election cycle, the crime bill underwent new scrutiny.

“If Joe Biden signs an executive order to defund federal private prisons, he’s taking the knife out a little, in some cases his own knife,” The Moguldom Nation founder Jamarlin Martin tweeted.

Martin added, “It’s the POLITICAL PROFIT with policing & prisons, more lucrative than the financial profit. To acknowledge the political profit is to sincerely acknowledge the problem.”

3. Order is not total reform

While Biden’s executive order does address the use of private prisons and the prison industrial complex, it does not address police reform. That was a disappointment to criminal justice reform activists, according to Rashad Robinson, president of the national racial justice organization Color of Change.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 73: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin makes the case for why this is a multi-factor rebellion vs. just protests about George Floyd. He discusses the Democratic Party’s sneaky relationship with the police in cities and states under Dem control, and why Joe Biden is a cop and the Steve Jobs of mass incarceration.

“President Biden’s executive orders to not renew contracts with for-profit prisons and to investigate housing discrimination wrought by Trump administration policies provide important steps forward, but do not go far enough,” Robinson told AP.