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The Biden Administration and Private Prisons: What You Need to Know

By Caroline Cahill


On January 31, 2020, President Joe Biden signed 25 executive orders, one of the most notable being a racial justice initiative aimed at eliminating the use of privately operated criminal detention facilities. The order effectively directs the Justice Department to stop renewing any contracts with privately-owned prisons, which house about 10% of inmates in the country. 


Private prisons are individually owned confinement centers that run through a contractual agreement with the government. 


Supporters of private prisons argue that they provide a lower-cost alternative to house overflows of inmates and avoid further overwhelming the public prisons, which notoriously struggle with congestion. In addition, private prisons sometimes offer better programs regarding training and rehabilitation. 


However, critics of private prisons argue that those aforementioned lower-costs might save money in the short-term, but they--combined with an alleged lack of accountability--ultimately result in understaffing and unsatisfactory conditions for the prisoners, such as poor health and sanitary services, and abusive treatment at the hands of staff. 


This executive order has been marketed by the administration as a step in the right direction in regards to racial equity. Activists have long protested the mass incarceration of black men in the United States (1 in 3 black men born in 2001 are estimated to be imprisoned, compared to 1 in 17 white men, marijuana arrests are four times as likely for black people than white, and black people served 20% longer sentences than white people for similar crimes), and claim that private prisons directly contribute to the issue. 


A study by African-American studies Ph.D. then-student Christopher Petrella revealed that in the nine states he examined, private prisons consistently housed higher rates of people of color, with the institutions themselves essentially admitting that they profit off of their inmates.  


While many believe the abolishment of private prisons is a step in the right direction, advocates believe it isn’t enough. 


“This order is a very important step, but it is only a first step,” said David Fathi,  Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Prison Project in an interview with NPR. He added that he believes the order should also stop private prisons from detaining immigrants, as more than 80% of detained immigrants are held in private, for-profit prisons. Fathi said this order only affects about 10% of all incarcerated people in America. Overall, however, Fathi said he feels encouraged by Biden’s early steps in the field of mass incarceration. 


While the left generally feels motivated by the order, those on the right are concerned that it will have more negative impacts than positive ones. One private prison company, GEO Group Inc., expressed concerns that the loss of hundreds of jobs and threat of overcrowding in public prisons outweighed worries held by people like Fathi, such as racial inequity, poor conditions, and the profit these companies make off of their inmates. 


The Biden administration has campaigned on big promises in regard to racial justice and prison reform. Supporters of the president have hope that this executive order is just the beginning of a long fight, while the opposition is fearful that the negative consequences of abolishing private prisons will far outweigh any positive. 

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