In the latest decree supposedly aimed at combating racial inequality, President Joe Biden has ordered the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons – for-profit institutions that have a grim history in the US.
“This is the first step to stop corporations from profiting off incarceration that is less humane and less safe as the studies show,” Biden said before signing the executive order on Tuesday. “This is just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system.”
Former President Barack Obama planned a gradual phase-out of federal contracts with private prisons in 2016, a move that was overturned one year later by Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Biden’s order returns federal policy to that of Obama.
Out of the US’ estimated two million prisoners, 130,000 inmates are in privately operated institutions, with around 35,000 of these inmates incarcerated on federal charges, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
Outsourced detention can be found as far back in the history books as the Revolutionary War, but prisons for profit emerged in their current form in the 1980s when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now known as CoreCivic, took over operation of a facility in Tennessee. Today, CoreCivic and its nearest competitor, the GEO Group, have a capacity of nearly 150,000 beds combined, and until recently were backed by some of Wall Street’s biggest investors, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America – both of whom divested from the sector in 2019.
Private corrections firms have been accused of incentivizing incarceration by lobbying the government for harsher penalties, and in the infamous ‘Cash for Kids’ scandal, by directly paying two judges to send juvenile delinquents to their detention centers. Human Rights Watch has found substandard conditions in these facilities, particularly ones housing detained illegal immigrants.
Biden’s order was one of several issued on Tuesday “to advance racial equity” – a nebulous term used heavily by both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the closing stages of the 2020 campaign, and one taken by conservatives to mean unfair ‘affirmative action’ policies that favor minorities.
America has never lived up to its founding promise of equality for all, but we’ve never stopped trying. Today, I’ll take action to advance racial equity and push us closer to that more perfect union we’ve always strived to be.
— President Biden (@POTUS) January 26, 2021
Two of these orders were largely symbolic: one underscoring the government’s commitment to Native American tribal sovereignty, and another to “condemn and denounce anti-Asian bias and discrimination.”
The fourth order of the day, however, marks another return to the policies of the Obama years. The order asks the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to look at enforcing a 2015 Obama administration policy that withheld federal funding from local authorities that didn’t compile racial databases of homeowners and work to diversify their communities.
Conservatives called the policies “social engineering,” and former president Trump’s HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, called it “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time.” Trump rescinded the rule last year, telling “all of the people living in their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”
Since taking office, Biden has flexed his executive authority more than any of his predecessors. Tuesday’s decrees bring to 40 the number of executive orders signed by the Democrat. Trump, by contrast, issued only five in his first week in office, and 55 in his first year.
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