[Pnews] Biden and prison reforms – a soft target?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 29 11:13:16 EST 2021

and prison reforms – a soft target?
James Kilgore - January 29, 2021

In his first executive order on criminal justice, United States President
Joe Biden addressed the thorny issue of private prisons.

Framing his January 25 order as part of a commitment to “racial equity”,
the president wants to halt the renewal of widely reviled private prison
contracts by the federal government. Biden proclaimed this as a “first step
to stop corporations from profiting off incarceration”.

Reform groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised Biden
for pulling the plug on private prison contracts but argued that it fell
short of his campaign promise. Ultimately, what is missing from the order
may be as telling as what it contains.

The scope of Biden’s move for prisons is small. Private prisons hold only
about 16 percent of the population in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
facilities and the BOP slice of the carceral pie is less than 10 percent of
all those behind bars in the US. Even for this small sector of the prison
population, the executive order does not address the issues of poor
conditions and excessive violence that have repeatedly surfaced in research
and court cases involving private prisons.

Most importantly, during a pandemic, halting the renewal of private prison
contracts, some of which continue for up to nine more years, does nothing
to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among jailed populations.

As of January 19, the Marshall Project reported 355,957 COVID-19 cases
among people in prison, with a death count of 2,232. This is twice the
death rate of the wider population.

Stopping the spread inside means releasing people. According to Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, prisons have an infection rate
four times higher than the general population.

Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute – the
justice, policy and research centre which released a national census of
prisons and jails this week, noted: “The efforts to reduce incarceration so
far … have been inadequate, even though they have resulted in almost
300,000 fewer people behind bars.”

Biden’s policy skirts around other crucial issues as well, some of which
his campaign platform on criminal justice highlighted.

For example, Biden’s platform argued that the “federal government should
not use private facilities for … detention of undocumented immigrants”. As
in the private prison sector, the major players in immigration detention
are the GEO Group and CoreCivic. For every 100 immigrants in detention, 32
are under GEO Group facilities, with 21 under CoreCivic.

Immigration detention has harboured one of the greatest travesties of the
Trump presidency – the separation of immigrant children from their
families. Although Biden promised to deal with this “moral failing” on day
one, so far no plan has been put in place to correct it.

At the same time, restructuring by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) in recent years has landed many immigrants in county jails, outside
the reach of Biden’s order on private prisons. Also not mentioned in the
order is the massive Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) run by
GEO Group subsidiary BI. Under ISAP, BI supervises more than 85,000
immigrants with about 40,000 on BI’s monitoring devices. The latest ISAP
contract awarded BI a potential revenue stream of $2.2bn.

The executive order does not fundamentally address the conditions for the
14,000 people currently held in the private prisons under BOP – they will
merely get a new jailer. As abolitionist activist and author Ruth Wilson
Gilmore reminds us: “If all the contracts ended tomorrow, nobody would walk

While studies show that conditions in private prisons are worse than
government-run facilities, some of the nation’s most notorious lockups –
Angola in Louisiana, the underground maximum-security federal prison in
Florence, Colorado and Pelican Bay in California – are state-run.

Last, the move fails to address another key plank of the election platform:
“All other methods of profiteering off of incarceration.”

A 2020 report from Worth Rises identified more than 4,100 corporations that
profit from imprisonment in the US. The GEO Group and CoreCivic control a
small but important sliver of the carceral profits pie. The reach of these
two firms, along with that of other important operators, such as telecom
providers Securus and GTL, is extending into diversion programmes,
re-entry, and electronic monitoring while maintaining a grip on traditional
carceral revenue streams from prison phones, contracts for food service and
healthcare provision. These firms are virtual carceral conglomerates,
contracted by state, local and federal government actors to perpetuate a
state-driven prison industrial complex that soaks up at least $180bn of
taxpayer money each year.

Wilson Gilmore urges a look at the bigger picture of this executive order.
“People ought to pay more attention to cause and effect,” she urges. “The
USA’s prisons haven’t been bulging because a few private parasites grabbed
contracts … Rather, the privates exploited an opportunity that came about
because the 52-plus prison jurisdictions have the legal, executive and
administrative power to lock people up.”

In the end, private prison contracts amount to a soft target – one that, as
think-tank The Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Bertram points
out, constitute “the least popular parts of our exceptionally unfair
criminal justice system”. “If his executive order is to be anything more
than a symbolic victory,” she says, “Biden needs to do more than just end
private prison contracts.”

Biden has a deep history of culpability for supporting mass imprisonment
with his 1990s push for prison building and harsh anti-Black sentencing
laws, during his years as a senator.

For those of us who have been imprisoned and, more crucially, those still
locked up, symbolic victories mean very little. We want executive actions
that undermine the core of history’s most gigantic punishment system and a
reallocation of that $180bn towards repairing the damage done by the US’s
failed carceral experiment.

*The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.*
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