Private prisons resurrection represents pay-to-play

Filed under COLUMNISTS, OPINION

Twenty-four hours after the election of Donald Trump, the stock prices of America’s privately-run prisons soared. This came as no surprise to private prison operators or to criminal justice reform advocates. In Trump, privately-owned prison companies rightly presumed that they had a staunch ally of their business model and motives in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Supports privatization
As a candidate, Trump publically praised and supported private prisons. With his appointment of Jeff Sessions – a well-known criminal justice hardliner – as attorney general, Trump’s words would inevitably transform into the torrent of policies we have been confronted with since his inauguration that reverse strides in criminal justice reform.

Only six months ago, private prison operators were fighting for their fiscal survival after Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo in August that directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out its use and reliance on private prisons.

Yates’ memorandum was issued on the heels of a report that concluded private prisons provided limited cost savings, f any; that they were less safe for both inmates and prison staff than in federally-run prisons; and that due to several policy initiatives – including reducing excessive drug offense sentencing guidelines for low-level drug defendants –the number of people in federal prisons has been on a decline over the last four years, eliminating the need for private prisons.

Stocks popular again
Yet, the stock prices of the two largest private prison operators, CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America) and Geo Group have skyrocketed since Election Day.

CoreCivic, which donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration events, has seen its share prices shoot up 140 percent. Geo Group, which also donated $250,000 towards Trump’s inaugural events and another $225,000 donated by a Geo Group subsidiary to a pro-Trump super PAC, has seen a near 100 percent rise. They enjoyed another profit-boosting bump after Sessions’ Senate confirmation.

If the fortunes of private prison operators are direct reflections of the harshness or equitableness of our nation’s criminal justice policies, one can assume that the Trump administration means to make America’s federal prisons full again.

Private-prison operators stand ready to profit from large-scale incarceration and increased immigration enforcement. Last year, more than 60 percent of Homeland Security detainees were reportedly held in privately-owned prisons.

Trump has also called for the construction of more jails along the Mexican border to accommodate the expected upsurge in the detainee population. Recently, the White House signaled “greater enforcement” of federal laws against recreational marijuana use, which could translate into greater numbers of inmates in our federal prisons.

One paragraph
All it took was a one-paragraph memorandum addressed to the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for Sessions to reverse the previous administration’s directives on for-profit prisons:
​ “I hereby rescind the memorandum dated August 18, 2016, sent to you by former Deputy ​Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, entitled “Reducing our Use of Private Prisons.” In that ​memorandum, former DAG Yates directed ‘that, as each contract reaches the end of its ​term, the Bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its ​scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the Bureau’s inmate ​population.’

The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired ​the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system. Therefore, ​I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.”

This 14-word statement of rationale should send a chill down your spine: “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” You may diverge from Sessions on policy, but you cannot fault his logic.

If we the people complacently allow the Trump administration to criminalize and harshly penalize low-level crimes, and engage in the mass arrests and detention of undocumented immigrants in our name, the administration will need the extra bed space to warehouse all those bodies.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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