Story at a glance

  • President Biden laid out a four-pronged racial equity plan on Tuesday, signing off on new executive orders that he hopes will address the scourge of systemic racism.
  • One of those four new actions included ordering the Department of Justice not to renew its contracts with private prisons.
  • Privatized prisons have been criticized for their brutal living conditions and high levels of reported violent malpractice, while defenders say they create jobs.
  • Experts say there is still much to be done about racial inequity within the criminal justice system.

On Tuesday President Biden signed off on four new executive orders, but not before laying out a racial equity plan and remarking that the U.S. government must change “its whole approach” on the issue. Biden added that the nation is less prosperous and secure because of systemic racism. 

“We must change now,” the president said. “I know it’s going to take time, but I know we can do it. And I firmly believe the nation is ready to change, but government has to change as well.”

Biden’s hyper-focus on racial inequity makes sense considering he both campaigned and rose to the presidency during a year of powerful racial reckoning. Now the new president is quickly making good on his campaign promises, with federal actions aimed at combating discriminatory housing practices, respecting sovereignty of tribal governments, fighting xenophobia against Asian Americans and ordering the Department of Justice to end its reliance on private prisons.

“I ran for president because I believe we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation,” said Biden during his remarks. “And the simple truth is, our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist.”

The order directs the Justice Department to decline to renew contracts with privately operated, for-profit prisons — an effort that first took root during the Obama administration and was championed by then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The policy was swiftly overturned by the Trump administration in 2017. Now, experts are questioning whether this move by Biden will be enough to truly stoke the fires of change.

Private prisons

Privatized prisons have been around since the 1800s — a practice that only accelerated following the Civil War. Now, privatized prisons are a billion-dollar industry with facilities known for horrific living conditions. A 2016 report by the Justice Department found that private prisons see high rates of assault, use of force incidents and lockdowns in comparison to prisons that are federally owned and regulated. 

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Biden made it known on Tuesday that the reinstated policy is “the first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration that is less humane and less safe,” adding that this is just the beginning of his overall plan to address systemic issues within the country’s criminal justice system.

The only problem, experts say, is that this policy only addresses a small fraction of the wider criminal justice system, as the more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately managed facilities are only a percentage of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated. In fact, the federal Bureau of Prisons had already opted not to renew some private prison contracts in recent months as the number of inmates dwindled, and many were released to home confinement due to coronavirus pandemic concerns. 

GEO Group, a private company that operates federal prisons, called the Biden order “a solution in search of a problem. ”

“Given the steps the BOP had already announced, today’s Executive Order merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic,” a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement.

Just the beginning?

During his campaign for the Oval Office, Biden made a number of promises aimed at resolving systemic issues within the criminal justice system, such as vowing to crack down on the ongoing misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices as well as calling for the immediate passage of the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act: a group of small reforms that could eventually reduce the federal prison population and ramp up probation efforts.

“The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises,” David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, told The Associated Press, also noting that the order does not end the federal government’s reliance on privately run immigration detention centers.

Some had hoped that Biden’s initial actions would have gone further, like Rashad Robinson of the national racial justice organization Color of Change.

“President Biden’s executive orders to not renew contracts with for-profit prisons and to investigate housing discrimination wrought by Trump administration policies provide important steps forward, but do not go far enough,” said Robinson.

Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing," told NBC News that he hopes Biden puts forth a more substantive effort in the coming months.

"I hope this is the beginning of the conversation and not the end of the conversation," he said. "I don't think this will have any impact on people who are already incarcerated, they'll just be moved to a different facility. I'd like to see him end all federal drug crimes, commute any sentence over 20 years, and replace funding for policing with funding for community-based initiatives."


Published on Jan 28, 2021