An Obama-era directive to phase out federal prisons has been reversed by the new administration, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.
"The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau's ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system," Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in a brief note to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). "Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach."
This rescinds a previous memo from former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who in 2016 called for reducing the use of private prisons.
Critics of the decision have pointed to a financial connection between President Donald Trump and the companies that run the private prisons.
According to the BOP's website the United States currently has 12 private prisons that house a total of 21,366 federal inmates. The prisons are owned by CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), the GEO Group and Management & Training Corporation.
Pablo Perez, VP of corporate relations for the GEO Group, reported to USA Today that the company donated $250,000 to President Donald Trump's inaugural festivities — in addition to a donation of at least $225,000 from a company subsidiary to Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now. CoreCivic also donated $250,000 to inaugural festivities.
At the time Yates made her announcement in 2016, shares of Corrections Corporation of America (before it was called CoreCivic) and GEO Group plunged more than 40 percent in midday trading.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the move a win for the companies that had helped President Donald Trump during his campaign. "Private prison companies invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Donald Trump's presidential campaign and today they got their reward," he said in a statement.
"At a time when we already have more people behind bars than any other country, Trump just opened the floodgates for private prisons to make huge profits by building more prisons and keeping even more Americans in jail," Sanders said. "We must end private prisons in America."
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) called the decision a "major setback" for criminal justice reform.
"The Bureau of Prisons' own inspector general has found that privately-managed prisons housing federal inmates are less safe and less secure than federal prisons, and these facilities have seen repeated instances of civil rights violations," Booker said. "Attaching a profit motive to imprisonment undermines the cause of justice and fairness."
CoreCivic said in a statement to CBS News that this new decision "validates our position that the Department's previous direction was not reflective of the high quality services we have provided to the federal government for decades."
Highly profitable private prisons, which aided in the increased incarceration of Blacks and Latinos due to racial disparities in sentencing, have been deemed highly unsafe.
Investigation into Private Prisons
According to Yates, private prisons do not generally offer the same quality of service as federal ones — and the need for them is diminishing.
"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities," Yates wrote in her 2016 memo to the BOP. "They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of lnspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
After an investigation into privately run prisons the Office of the Inspector General released a report, "Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Monitoring of Contract Prisons," which states, "We found that, in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas."
Of the eight areas investigated, private prisons did not stack up in six, according to the report:
"Our analysis included data from FYs 2011 through 2014 in eight key categories: (1) contraband, (2) reports of incidents, (3) lockdowns, (4) inmate discipline, (5) telephone monitoring, (6) selected grievances, (7) urinalysis drug testing, and (8) sexual misconduct. With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined."
Racial Disparities in Prison Populations
Criminal justice reform was a large part of former President Barack Obama's platform, particularly reversing the effect of the war on drugs, which disproportionately impacted Blacks and Latinos.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill, created mandatory crack violations that were much harsher than those for powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are molecularly similar. The possession of more than five grams of crack is a felony punishable by at least five years in prison — the same as the conviction of a drug offense involving 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Most offenders sentenced under the crack provisions are Black, whereas white offenders make up a much higher portion of those convicted for powder cocaine offenses.
Statistics show sharp racial disparities when it comes to the prison population. According to the Center for American Progress:
– People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are Black.
– Latinos represent 16 percent of the overall population but 19 percent of those who are incarcerated.
– Whites make up 64 percent of the overall population but account for only 39 percent of those who are incarcerated.