WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday withdrew an Obama-era Justice Department memo that set a goal of reducing and ultimately ending the Justice Department’s use of private prisons.
In a one-page memo to the acting head of the Bureau of Prisons, Sessions wrote that the August 2016 memo by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates “changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
A Justice Department spokesman said Sessions’ memo “directs the Bureau of Prisons to return to its previous approach to the use of private prisons,” which would “restore BOP’s flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs.”
BOP currently has 12 private prison contracts that hold around 21,000 inmates. Yates had said that private prisons compared “poorly” to BOP prisons. Her memo followed a damning report from the Justice Department’s inspector general which found that privately run facilities were more dangerous than those run by BOP.
The two largest private prison companies have told investors that they have room to accommodate increased use of their prisons by federal or state and local authorities. On an earnings call with stock analysts this week, executives at GEO Group emphasized that their company has a total of 5,000 spots in its prisons that are presently either unused or underutilized.
GEO senior vice President David Donahue put it fairly bluntly, telling analysts that their idle and underutilized cells are “immediately available and meet ICE’s national detention standards.”
CoreCivic, formerly known as CCA, told investors on Feb. 17 that the company has nine idle prisons that can hold a total of 8,700 people. Those prisons are ready to accept inmates on short notice. “All of our idle facilities are modern and well maintained, and can be made available to potential state and federal partners without much, if any capital investment or the lead-time required for new construction,” CEO Damon Hininger said.
Indeed, Haninger said that CoreCivic was already holding more detained immigrants for the federal government than they anticipated. “Our financial performance in the fourth quarter of 2016 was well above our initial forecast due, in large part, to heightened utilization by ICE across the portfolio,” he said.
And, Haninger said, the Trump administration’s actions could boost financial performance even further. “When coupled with the above average rate crossings along the Southwest border, these executive orders appear likely to significantly increase the need for safe, humane and appropriate detention bed capacity that we have available in our existing real-estate portfolio,” he said. “We are well positioned,” to get more business from ICE, Haninger said.
David C. Fathi, who directs the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said that giving for-profit companies control of prisons is “a recipe for abuse and neglect.” He said the Sessions memo was a further sign the U.S. “may be headed for a new federal prison boom” under the Trump administration.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the Sessions memo was an example of “how our corrupt political and campaign finance system” works.
“Private prison companies invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and today they got their reward: the Trump administration reversed the Obama administration’s directive to reduce the Justice Department’s use of private prisons,” Sanders 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.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Sanders, Fathi and private prison executives.