Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wants to close all of America’s private prisons.
The latest proposal from the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate includes a pledge to end federal government contracts “that the Bureau of Prisons and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] have with private detention providers,” which will also extend to states and localities.
“There should be no place in America for profiting off putting more people behind bars or in detention,” she wrote in a Medium post on Friday. The post comes ahead of an appearance at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference this weekend
“The government has a basic responsibility to keep the people in its care safe—not to use their punishment as an opportunity for profit,” Warren added. “That’s why today, I’m proposing my plan to root out once and for all the profit incentives perverting our criminal and immigration systems.”
The issue of private prisons has been growing in importance, especially with a 2020 Democratic primary filled with criminal justice reform proposals. Critics charge that profit motives have led to a desire for higher incarceration and worse conditions. According to a 2018 study from The Sentencing Project, an advocacy center working to reduce incarceration, the largest private prison corporations generated revenue of some $3.5 billion in 2015. From 2000 to 2016, the number of people incarcerated in private prisons rose 47 percent while the overall prison population went up 9 percent. The industry has seen an improvement since President Trump’s election, as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a memo from the Obama administration calling for private prisons to be wound down.
A Warren aide said that the policy would also apply to pre-existing private prisons with a wind down planned as soon as safely possible and not just a ban on contracts for future ones. Additionally, Warren said in her post that as president she’d stop contractors from charging service fees for essential prison services like phone calls, bank transfers, and health care.
“I’ll also keep contractors from imposing exploitative price markups on other services they provide, like commissary or package services,” she writes. “And I’ll prohibit companies from charging for re-entry, supervision, and probation services, too—because no one should have to pay for their own incarceration, whether it’s inside a facility or outside of one.”
Warren also wants to use the Department of Justice to hold contractors accountable, putting in place an independent Prison Conditions Monitor within the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General. This monitor, as Warren describes it, would set quality standards and regularly audit and investigate contractors with the possibility of terminating the contracts if they fall short of standards.
Warren writes about how private prison companies have profited off mass incarceration while employing the same tactics at detention centers, citing a contract that one of these centers, Homestead, got from the Department of Health and Human Services after former White House Chief of Staff and previous head of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly had joined the board.
Recently, Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) demanded answers from the CEO of Caliburn International, the company that operates the center, about how Kelly came to be on the board there.
“General Kelly’s role in promoting and helping execute these cruel immigration policies remains a stain on his decades of public service,” they wrote in the letter. “It is outrageous that he now appears to be cashing in on those same policies, as a board member for the company that benefited from his actions as a government official.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) are among the many other candidates who have also talked about eliminating private for-profit prisons.