In his first executive order on criminal justice, US President Joe Biden addressed the thorny issue of private prisons.
Framing his January 25 ordinance as part of a commitment to “racial equity”, the president wants to put an end to the renewal of private prison contracts widely vilified by the federal government. Biden proclaimed this as “a first step in preventing companies from profiting from incarceration.”
Reform groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised Biden for cutting private prison contracts, but argued it broke his election promise. In the end, what is missing from the order can be as telling as what is in it.
The reach of Biden’s movement for prisons is small. Private prisons hold only about 16% of the population in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities and the BOP share of the prison pie is less than 10% of all behind bars in the United States. . Even for this small sector of the prison population, the decree fails to address the problems of poor conditions and excessive violence that have repeatedly surfaced in research and court cases involving private prisons.
More importantly, during a pandemic, stopping the renewal of private prison contracts, some of which last up to nine more years, does nothing to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among imprisoned populations.
As of January 19, Project Marshall reported 355,957 cases of COVID-19 among people in prison, with a death toll of 2,232. That’s double the death rate for the general population.
Stopping the spread indoors means freeing people. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, prisons have an infection rate four times higher than the general population.
Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate at the Vera Institute – the center for justice, policy and research that released a national census of prisons and prisons this week, noted: “Efforts to reduce incarceration so far … have been insufficient, even though they have dragged nearly 300,000 fewer people behind bars. “
Biden’s policies also avoid other crucial issues, some of which have been highlighted by his criminal justice campaign platform.
For example, Biden’s platform argued that “the federal government should not use private facilities for … the detention of undocumented immigrants.” As in the private prison sector, the main actors in the detention of migrants are the GEO group and CoreCivic. For every 100 immigrants in detention, 32 are in the premises of the GEO group, and 21 in CoreCivic.
Immigrant detention has hosted one of the biggest parodies of the Trump presidency – the separation of immigrant children from their families. Although Biden has promised to face this “moral failure” from day one, no plan has been in place to correct it so far.
At the same time, restructuring by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent years has placed many immigrants in county jails, beyond the reach of Biden’s private jails order. The ordinance also does not mention the huge Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) managed by the BI subsidiary of GEO Group. As part of ISAP, BI supervises more than 85,000 immigrants, of which around 40,000 are on BI surveillance systems. The latest ISAP contract gave BI a potential revenue of $ 2.2 billion.
The decree does not fundamentally address the conditions for the 14,000 people currently being held in private prisons under BOP – they will simply get a new jailer. As abolitionist activist and author Ruth Wilson Gilmore recalls: “If all contracts ended tomorrow, no one would be free.”
While studies show conditions in private prisons are worse than government-run facilities, some of the country’s most notorious dungeons – Angola in Louisiana, the maximum security underground federal prison in Florence, Colorado and Pelican Bay in California – are state-run.
Finally, the decision does not respond to another key element of the electoral platform: “All other methods of profiting from incarceration.”
A 2020 report from Worth Rises identified more than 4,100 companies profiting from imprisonment in the United States. The GEO group and CoreCivic control a small but significant slice of the prison profit pie. The reach of these two companies, along with that of other major operators, such as telecom providers Securus and GTL, extends to hijacking programs, re-entry and electronic surveillance while maintaining a grip on flows. traditional prison revenues from prison phones, contracts. for catering and the provision of health care. These companies are virtual prison conglomerates, hired by state, local, and federal government actors to perpetuate a state-run prison industrial complex that absorbs at least $ 180 billion in taxpayer dollars each year.
Wilson Gilmore urges to take a look at the overview of this decree. “People should pay more attention to causes and effects,” she insists. “American prisons have not swelled because a few private parasites grabbed contracts… On the contrary, the private ones have exploited an opportunity that has arisen because the more than 52 prison jurisdictions have legal, executive and administrative power. to put people in jail. ”
Ultimately, private prison contracts are a soft target – a target that, as The Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Bertram points out, is “the less popular parts of our justice system. exceptionally unjust criminal law ”. “If his executive order is to be anything other than a symbolic victory,” she said, “Biden must do more than just end the private prison contracts.”
Biden has a long history of guilt for supporting mass imprisonment with his 1990s push for the construction of prisons and tough anti-black laws, during his years as a senator.
For those of us who have been imprisoned and, more importantly, for those who are still locked up, symbolic victories don’t mean much. We want executive action that undermines the heart of the most gigantic punishment system in history and a reallocation of that $ 180 billion to undo the damage done by the failed US prison experience.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.