President Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday. Vice President Kamala Harris listens at left.

President Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday. Vice President Kamala Harris listens at left. Evan Vucci / AP

Biden Directs Justice Department Not to Renew Private Prisons Contracts 

“Privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs and resources,” said the executive order. 

President Biden directed the Justice Department on Tuesday not to renew contracts with private prisons, garnering praise from the union that represents Federal Bureau of Prisons employees and other groups, as well as calls for more criminal justice reforms.

The directive came in the form of an executive order, one of several issued on Tuesday aimed at racial equality. There are 14,095 federal inmates in privately managed facilities, which is about 9% of the total federal inmate population. The federal government began using contract prisons in 1997 to alleviate overcrowding. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' inmate population has been decreasing since its peak in 2013.

“More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, including a disproportionate number of people of color,” the executive order stated. “There is broad consensus that our current system of mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer. Privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs and resources.”

Biden said upon signing the order that this was “a step we started to take at the end of the Obama administration and was reversed under the previous administration.” Additionally, he said this order was just the start of his administration’s efforts to address systemic issues in the criminal justice system and prevent corporations from profiting off of incarceration. 

The executive order referenced an August 2016 report from the Justice Department inspector general that found, “While the contract prisons had fewer positive inmate drug tests and sexual misconduct allegations than BOP institutions, they had more frequent incidents of contraband finds, assaults, uses of force, lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, and selected categories of grievances.” The IG also said that BOP needed to improve its oversight of contract prisons.

BOP “already opted not to renew some private prison contracts in recent months as the number of inmates dwindled and thousands were released to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic,” The Associated Press noted. 

The executive order “is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “It does not, however, limit the role of other profiteers, such as for-profit prison health care companies, which have also been the source of much abuse and malfeasance in recent years. And it does not end the relationship between private prison companies and the Department of Homeland Security, including in the immigrant detention system.” Biden is considering issuing a similar executive order for immigration detention facilities, according to Politico

“We can’t make real progress toward ending mass incarceration in this country while the companies getting rich from it can turn around and give millions of dollars to the elected officials who write our criminal laws,” said Holly Harris, president and executive director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan organization focused on criminal justice reform. “Will this cure all that ails our broken justice system? Of course not. Is it a critical step in the right direction? Absolutely.” 

Shane Fausey, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, also applauded Biden's move. The union represents over 30,000 federal law enforcement officials nationwide. 

“It has been proven time and again that the loyal public servants of the Bureau of Prisons are the quintessential correctional law enforcement professionals,” Fausey said. “They house, confine, and protect those who have committed a crime against our citizens and the American way of life; they do so more cost effectively, more efficiently, and much safer than their for-profit counterparts.” Also, “profiting from the incarceration of American citizens transcends our moral conscience.” 

Brandy Moore, national secretary treasurer for the Council of Prison Locals, told Government Executive, that this was “huge” news, but also, “our staffing definitely needs to increase if more inmates are going to be coming to us.” Staffing levels at BOP have been a long-term issue that has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic

Meanwhile, Pablo Paez, spokesman for GEO Group, one of the largest operators of private prisons in the country, told Bloomberg News the directive “is a solution in search of a problem” and that “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.”

In other BOP-related news, Moore said she was pleased that Biden already rescinded Trump’s executive orders that were “detrimental to unions.” She would also like “either an extension of our collective bargaining agreement or to go back to the table and re-negotiate in a much more union friendly environment.” Their negotiations have stalled due to the pandemic. The union would also like Congress to appropriate more funding for BOP’s staff and building maintenance as well as personal protective gear and hazardous duty pay for the pandemic.