In the 1990s, Joe Biden bragged that his work in the U.S. Senate helped America win the “War on Crime.” Decades later, one of his first acts as president will be to undo one of the most potent symbols of that record.
Included in a raft of executive orders designed to address systemic racism in the housing and criminal justice systems that Biden intends to sign on Tuesday afternoon is an order ending the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons. Such facilities, operated across the country, are a billion-dollar industry, paid for with taxpayer money and often plagued by dehumanizing conditions for inmates, minimal training of personnel, and work conditions that former detainees liken to slave labor.
“Mass incarceration imposes significant costs on our society and community, while private prisons profiteer off federal prisoners and have been found by the Department of Justice’s own inspector general to be less safe and secure,” a senior administration official told reporters on a briefing ahead of the announcement of the executive orders’ contents, calling the policy a “first step in his broader criminal justice agenda.”
“President Biden is committed to reducing mass incarceration while making our communities safer,” the official said. “That starts with ending the federal government’s reliance on private prisons.”
As the architect of the landmark legislation he once dubbed “The Biden Crime Bill,” Biden spent much of the Democratic presidential primaries on the back foot as rivals for the nomination attacked the law as a driving force behind the modern carceral state. Amid nationwide protests over police brutality against Black Americans and in favor of wide-scale criminal justice reform over the summer, Biden expressed regret over some aspects of that bill, which included funds for the vast expansion of America’s prison system, and vowed to undo the damage if elected.
“‘I can’t breathe.’ It’s a wake-up call for our nation, for all of us,” Biden said in June, quoting the dying words of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who was killed as a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. “It’s not the first time we’ve heard these words—they’re the same words we heard from Eric Garner when his life was taken six years ago. But it’s time to listen to these words, understand them, and respond to them with real action.”
Under the order, Biden directs the attorney general—as-yet-unconfirmed Judge Merrick Garland—to not renew any Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. The administration official said they did not know exactly how much money would be saved by ending the use of private prisons, but added cost savings were not “the motivating factor.”
“The motivating factor, however, was the fact that private prisons, not only, you know, encouraged profiteering off of human lives but more importantly had been shown by the Department of Justice Inspector General report to be subpar in terms of safety and security for those incarcerated, and so that is the rationale for ending the contracts with private prisons,” the official said. “When they come up for renewal, they won’t be renewed.”
Under the Trump administration, use of private prisons exploded as those facilities began serving double duty as immigrant detention centers, where undocumented immigrants—including those seeking legal asylum—frequently suffered from the same inhumane conditions as other inmates. Asked by The Daily Beast whether the order includes private prison facilities operated as immigrant detention centers, which fall under the Department of Homeland Security’s authority, a White House spokesperson clarified that the order only applies to the Department of Justice.”
Lobbying expenses and political donations by the industry skyrocketed over the past four years, an indication that Biden’s executive order may face stiff opposition from congressional recipients of the industry’s largesse.