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Biden orders Department of Justice to phase out contracts with private prisons

President Joe Biden on Tuesday ordered the Department of Justice to end its reliance on private prisons and acknowledge the central role government has played in implementing discriminatory housing policies.

In remarks before signing the orders, Mr. Biden said the U.S. government needs to change "its whole approach" on the issue of racial equity. He added that the nation is less prosperous and secure because of the scourge 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."

The order to end the reliance on privately-run prisons directs the attorney general not to renew Justice Department contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. The move will effectively revert the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration.

"This is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration," Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden rose to the presidency during a year of intense reckoning on institutional racism in the U.S. The moves announced Tuesday reflect his efforts to follow through with campaign pledges to combat racial injustice.

Beyond calling on the Justice Department to curb the use of private prisons and address housing discrimination, the new orders will recommit the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty and disavow discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community over the coronavirus pandemic.

The more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately-managed facilities represent a fraction of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated.

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 thousands were released to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, noted that the order does not end the federal government's reliance on privately-run immigration detention centers.

"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," Fathi said.

Rashad Robinson, president of the national racial justice organization Color of Change, expressed disappointment that policing was not addressed in the executive action.

"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, who noted that he had hoped Mr. Biden would have moved to reinstate an Obama-era policy barring the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.

Mr. Biden's victory over Mr. Trump in several battleground states, including Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, was fueled by strong Black voter turnout. Throughout his campaign and transition, Mr. Biden promised that his administration would keep issues of equity — as well as climate change, another issue he views as an existential crisis — in the shaping of all policy considerations.

Mr. Biden, who followed through on early promise to pick a woman to serve as vice president, has also sought to spotlight the diversity of his Cabinet selections.

On Monday, the Senate confirmed Mr. Biden's pick for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, who is the first woman to lead the department. Last week, the Senate confirmed Lloyd Austin as the nation's first Black defense secretary.

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