Under the authority of newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has reneged on a pledge to no longer use the private prison industry as a means of running federal prisons.
On Thursday, Sessions wrote in a one-paragraph memo that the pledge would have “changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the [Bureau of Prison’s] ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system…Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”
Criminal justice advocates cheered when the DOJ, then headed by Loretta Lynch, announced the now-cancelled directive back in August 2016. At the time, the DOJ declared that private prisons would be gradually cut loose by scaling them back or allowing governmental contracts with private prisons to expire.
“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,” former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote, according to The Washington Post.
It is important to note, however, that when the Obama administration announced that it would no longer use private prisons to house federal inmates, that only affected 13 out of 102 federal prisons. That’s because most inmates reside in state, not federal prisons. And, as the Washington Post notes, the decision did not apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service detainees.
Still, markets seemed to welcome Sessions’ reversal. Shares of two top private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic, spiked upward, Reuters reported.
Some fear that these market signals spell increased Washington, D.C. lobbying efforts for criminalization in the near future.
David C. Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, told The Washington Post that for-profit prisons were “a recipe for abuse and neglect,” and that the policy reversal seems to be foreshadowing that “the United States may be headed for a new federal prison boom.” He added that if Sessions doesn’t think the federal prison industry can meet its needs without for-profit facilities, “you’ve got to wonder what they’ve got up their sleeve.”
Part of the reason the DOJ announced the move away from private prisons under the Obama administration was because the U.S. prison population — which is one of the highest in the world — is falling.