“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian Novelist, “The House of the Dead,” 1862
by Marc Morial
Twenty-four hours after the election of Donald Trump as this nation’s 45th president, the stock prices of privately run prisons in this country soared. And this reversal of fortune came as no surprise to private prison operators—or criminal justice reform advocates. With Trump in the White House, privately owned prison companies rightly presumed that they had a staunch ally of their business model and motives in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a candidate, Trump publically praised and supported private prisons. During a town hall meeting, Trump said, “I do think we can do a lot of privatization and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.” With his appointment of Jeff Sessions—a well-known criminal justice hardliner—as attorney general, his words of praise and support would inevitably transform into the torrent of policies we have been confronted with since his inauguration that absolutely reverse hard fought for 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—if any; that they were less safe for both inmates and prison staff than in federally run prisons; and, that due to a number of 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.
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, along with another $225,000 donated by a Geo Group subsidiary to a pro-Trump super PAC, has seen a near 100 percent rise in its share prices. The corporations even 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, than it is safe to assume that the Trump administration means to put into effect policies that make America’s federal prisons full again.
Private prison operators stand at the ready to profit from policies that embrace large-scale incarceration. CoreCivic and Geo Group both stand to profit mightily from increased immigration enforcement. Not only do both companies run the majority of for-profit prisons, but they also own facilities used to detain undocumented immigrants. Last year, over 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 Mexico/United States border to accommodate the expected upsurge in our nation’s 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.
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. As long as 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.