BREAKING: Trump’s Department of Justice reverses order to phase out federal private prisons

February 23, 2017

Memo from Attorney General Sessions furthers cause of mass incarceration of immigrants, private prisons that gave heavily to campaign and have close relationships with Trump administration

(AUSTIN, Texas) — Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will reverse course on an August announcement to phase out the use of private prisons in the federal prison system.  The announcement directs the Bureau of Prisons to return to its previous policy and to continue using for-profit private prisons.  

In August, the DOJ had announced that it was instructing the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to phase out private prison contracts over a five year period with the eventual goal of eliminating their use in the federal prison system.  DOJ officials based the announcement on a reduction of the federal prison population from a peak of approximately 220,000 prisoners in 2013 to 195,000 federal prisoners, reducing the need for contract prison space.

“Today’s announcement is yet another edict from this administration that undermines civil rights for incarcerated people and criminal justice reform efforts,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership.  “This administration appears to be more interested in lining the coffers of its friends at private prison corporations than promoting common sense policies that would reduce the incarcerated population and close troubled prisons.”

Most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. CAR prisons hold noncitizens, many of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border. Today’s announcement likely marks a recommitment to the use of segregated federal prisons for non-citizens. CAR facilities have been racked with scandals and prison uprisings for years, including at the infamous Tent City detention center in Willacy County, Texas.  

For-profit prisons contracted by the BOP were found in the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General’s own assessment to be less safe and efficient than publicly operated facilities. The report that showed, amongst other things, that private prisons contracted by the BOP had higher rates of assaults, both on prisoners and staff, that private prisons improperly put prisoners into solitary confinement, and that private prison contracts did not save significant amounts of money.

Many of the immigrants incarcerated in CAR prisons are sentenced for one of two federal charges: misdemeanor improper entry or felony improper re-entry. The book, Indefensible: A Decade of Mass Incarceration of Migrants Prosecuted for Crossing the Border, released by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies last summer, revealed that these two charges account for half of all federal prosecutions although they are merely status offenses for crossing the border without proper documentation, and have not fallen under DOJ priorities.

Despite glaring problems, prison corporations have gained favor with the Trump Administration.  A pro-Trump Super PAC received a $125,000 donation from private prison corporation GEO Group, and private prison stocks soared following November’s election. GEO has also hired former aides to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as lobbyists.

Today’s memo is just the latest in a series of executive actions that have pleased private prison corporations.  Executives at Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded as CoreCivic) told shareholders on a call earlier this month that executive orders taken by the Trump administration would “significantly increase” detention capacity on the border.    

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past.


Bob Libal,, 512-971-0487