The Department of Justice (DOJ) last year announced the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would no longer contract with private prison corporations. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday instructed the Bureau to once again rely on these companies, which contributed large sums to President Trump’s 2016 campaign and his inauguration.
The DOJ in August cited private prisons’ failure to maintain adequate levels of safety and security as a primary reason to no longer contract with these companies. Privately run prison facilities have more incidents of violence than their public counterparts, according to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Private corrections facilities experience 65 percent more prisoner-to-prisoner assaults and 49 percent more assaults on staff than public facilities.
The decision to cut ties with private companies, made by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, was widely applauded as a move in the right direction. The nation’s private prison system had been called a “national disgrace,” synonymous with “violence, abuse, and death.” This is largely because of the companies both running the system and profiting from it, such as GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).
CoreCivic, the country’s largest private prison operator, made $3,356 in profit per prisoner in 2015. GEO Group, the second largest private prison operator, made $2,135 in profit per prisoner. In The Public Interest has found that private prison companies encouraged mass incarceration by owning and marketing facilities.
These companies have also become notorious for human rights abuses. CoreCivic, which recently underwent a rebranding to sidestep its “long history of egregious prisoner abuse and neglect,” has routinely failed to “follow basic regulations and standards regarding facility operations and safety has repeatedly endangered prisoners and staff alike,” In The Public Interest reported. CoreCivic-run facilities have unprecedented levels of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and sexual assaults, even when compared to other privately-run facilities. This is the primary company that the criminal justice system and the immigration detention system rely on for running facilities.
Sessions’ directive also has troubling implications for undocumented immigrants.
As Austin-based immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership noted in a statement about Sessions’ announcement, most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. These prisons hold noncitizens, most of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border.
“Today’s announcement likely marks a recommitment to the use of segregated federal prisons for non-citizens. CAR facilities have been racked with scandals and prison uprisings for years, including at the infamous Tent City detention center in Willacy County, Texas,” Grassroots Leadership reported. CAR prisons were the focus of a recent investigation by the Nation about poor medical care resulting in in-custody deaths.
After the DOJ decision in August, advocates hoped that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would follow suit. That same month, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson tasked the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) with evaluating “whether the immigration detention operations conducted by ICE should move in the same direction” as the DOJ. It was announced in December that ICE would continue contracting with private prison companies. The announcement did not come as a surprise to advocates, as Trump had just been elected, vowing to drastically expand the already unruly detention system.
Recent nationwide sweeps resulting in the detainment of nearly 700 undocumented immigrants–and continued moves to criminalize this population for the purpose of mass deportations–has private prison companies “salivating” over the potential business boom, the Intercept reported.
In a call with investors this week, GEO Group CEO George Zoley said that as a result of Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders, ICE will need “additional capacity.” Zoley boasted that “with the respect to detention services, in support of border security, we would continue to be the largest provider of detention services to the three largest government agencies, that is ICE, the Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshals Service.”
The Intercept reported that Geo Group was one of the first large, publicly-traded firms to make a hefty campaign contribution to Trump, giving $50,000 to a pro-Trump Super PAC and $45,000 to the Trump campaign via the “Trump Victory fund, a joint fundraising committee between Trump and various state Republican Party groups.” CoreCivic donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.
Grassroots Leadership’s Executive Director Bob Libal in a statement cited Sessions’ announcement as yet another act by the Trump administration that undermines criminal justice reforms and civil rights for incarcerated people.
“This administration appears to be more interested in lining the coffers of its friends at private prison corporations than promoting common sense policies that would reduce the incarcerated population and close troubled prisons,” Libal said.