President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice not to renew its contracts with private prisons yesterday.
The U.S. has the world’s largest private prison population, and the federal government is the country’s single largest user of private prisons. The number of people incarcerated in private prisons increased 47% from 2000 to 2016—five times faster than the total prison population.
President Biden said his order is intended to ultimately end the Justice Department’s use of private criminal detention facilities. He described it as a first step to “stop corporations from profiting” off incarceration, and said it was “just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system.”
In 2016, after the Justice Department inspector general found that private prisons reported higher rates of assault, more uses of force, and more contraband than facilities operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons, the department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that directive in 2017.
The executive order states that phasing out the federal government’s reliance on private prisons is necessary to decrease incarceration levels, and notes that private prisons consistently underperform federal facilities in providing services, programs, and resources focused on rehabilitation and redemption.
“Mass incarceration imposes significant costs on our society and communities,” the administration said in a fact sheet provided to reporters, “while private prisons profiteer off of federal prisoners in less safe conditions for prisoners and correctional officers alike.”
Most incarcerated people in the U.S. are housed in state prisons, which do not fall under the president’s order. A 2018 report found that 27 states used private prisons operated by for-profit companies and nonprofits in 2016. The number of people in state custody who were confined in private prisons grew by 31%, from 71,845 to 94,164, between 2000 and 2016.