Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s four-sentence memo rescinding Justice Department guidance to reduce the use of private prisons sent stock soaring for the two companies that dominate the industry, Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). That’s not necessarily because the memo will lead to a ramp-up in Geo- or CoreCivic-run federal prisons. As of December 2015, about 12 percent of all inmates in federal prisons were housed in private facilities, representing only 22,660 inmates. That certainly won’t decline under Sessions, but he didn’t promise to increase it substantially. “I direct the [Bureau of Prisons] to return to its previous approach,” Sessions wrote. Anyway, DoJ renewed a pair of contracts with CoreCivic despite the now-scuttled order, so it’s unclear if the status quo ever stopped.
But the high-profile memo does matter because of the precedent. States and federal agencies that might have otherwise been wary of the negative perception of private prisons, and their often horrific outcomes, can now rest easy.
The Department of Homeland Security in particular is preparing for a boom in detention facilities to house undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. This could increase the population under detention by as much as four-fold. Incidentally, if immigrants face criminal prosecution for entering the country illegally, that could increase those held in Bureau of Prisons facilities overseen by the Justice Department. This could be what Sessions meant in his memo about needing flexibility “to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
A majority of current immigration- and family-detention facilities, 62 percent, are privately run. Though DHS never joined DoJ in recommending a phase-out, it did issue a report revealing the inferior quality of private detention centers relative to federally run ones, and an advisory council supported phasing out the private facilities. But now that the attorney general has given his stamp of approval, the industry has been rehabilitated.
The seeds of Sessions’s evangelism for private prisons, and the future of the industry, were sown back in October, when two of his former Senate aides, David Stewart and Ryan Robichaux, became lobbyists for Geo Group. Stewart and Robichaux, who represent the lobbying firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, were specifically hired to deal with federal government contracting. The bet that Trump might win the presidency, and tap Sessions, one of his earliest supporters, for a powerful position in the government, paid off.