Biden Phases Out Contracts With Private Prisons

The Department Of Justice Will Not Renew Existing Contracts With Private Prison Companies Following An Executive Order Signed By Biden on Jan. 27.

U.S. Capitol Building At Night

Published February 3, 2021

The Center for Responsive Politics [Alyce McFadden]

An Executive Order signed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 27, orders that the Department of Justice will not renew existing contracts with private prison companies. The move, part of a package of racial justice initiatives, reinstates an Obama-era policy reversed by former President Donald Trump in 2017.

Even as the industry has drawn sharp criticism from criminal justice reform groups, the top private prison companies continue to net billions in revenue by contracting with federal, state and local governments.

In 2019, private facilities incarcerated an estimated 116,000 individuals — or 8.1 percent of the nation’s total prison population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Biden’s executive action applies narrowly to agencies managed by the Department of Justice and exempts some federal law enforcement agencies including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security. It does not cancel existing contracts, meaning that inmates in DOJ custody currently incarcerated in private prisons will not be transferred to government operated facilities.

GEO Group and CoreCivic, the nation’s two largest private prison companies, both netted under a quarter of their total 2019 revenue from contracts with the DOJ, according to the companies’ 2019 annual reports. GEO Group brought in 11 percent of its revenue from contracts with the U.S. Marshal’s Service and 12 percent from the Bureau of Prisons.

The company’s total revenue in 2019 was $2.5 billion. CoreCivic brought in a revenue just shy of $2 billion, of which 17 percent came from the Marshal’s Service and only 5 percent from the Bureau of Prisons. Contracts with ICE produced a significantly greater share of both companies’ revenue.

For-profit prison companies spent a combined $4.2 million to lobby the federal government in 2020, one of the most expensive lobbying years on record for the industry.

CoreCivic spent $1.8 million on lobbying last year and employed 14 lobbyists including Jeff Miller of Miller Strategies. Over the final three years of Trump’s time in office, CoreCivic’s lobbying spending increased steadily.

The company’s website says it doesn’t “lobby on any policies, regulations or legislation that impact the basis for — or duration of — an individual’s incarceration or detention,” though it has previously lobbied the federal and state governments on immigration and criminal justice policies that ultimately benefited its bottom line.

GEO Group spent $1.4 million last year and contracted with a total of 18 lobbyists, reporting lobbying on the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security’s 2021 appropriations bills. Chris Cox and Brian Ballard, lobbied for GEO Group during Trump’s presidency.

Private prison companies have been preparing their contingency plans for a Biden presidency. Both GEO Group and CoreCivic have diversified their business models, buying up “reentry facilities,” commonly referred to as “halfway houses.” CoreCivic has been steadily purchasing commercial office space since 2016, which it leases to government agencies.

Private prison interests have given millions of dollars in campaign contributions since 2016. In the 2020 election, the sector broke its own giving records, contributing a combined total of $2.6 million to federal candidates, parties and outside groups. Ninety-two percent of the money given to candidates and parties went to Republicans. 

Private prison companies also give significantly to state-level candidates. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, GEO Group and CoreCivic have both given tens of thousands of dollars to gubernatorial candidates from both parties in states where private prisons hold between 4 percent and 50 percent of the total incarcerated population.

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Around 94,000 individuals in the custody of state prison systems were incarcerated in private facilities in 2020. Contracts with state governments comprised 34 percent of CoreCivic’s 2019 revenue and 22 percent of GEO Group’s. GEO Group also operates facilities internationally, including in South Africa and Australia.

A report commissioned by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice in August 2016 found that for-profit prisons “incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable [federally operated] institutions.” The DOJ reported that inmate-on-inmate violence was 28 percent more likely to occur in for-profit prisons, and inmate-on-staff violence occurred twice as often in private prisons than publicly-run ones. 

Then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order ending future contracts with private prisons shortly after the report’s publication.

“The goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities,” wrote then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a statement announcing the move.

Biden’s decision to re-implement his former boss’ move came as part of a package of overhauls aimed at curbing systemic racism. Advocates for racial equity and prison reform pointed out that Biden’s order will not altogether end the use of private prisons in the U.S., nor does it address the broader inequities that plague America’s criminal justice system.

“[Biden] made bold commitments on the campaign trail to cut mass incarceration and reverse the legacy of decades of racist and damaging policies. The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but [Biden] has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises,” wrote David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in a statement responding to the order.

Politico reported that the Biden administration may move to end future contracts between private prisons and the Department of Homeland Security soon, though the administration has not publicized any plans to do so at this point.

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