It’s barely a month in, but the Trump administration has already brought great news for America’s private prison companies.
On Feb. 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a memo that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued last summer which moved to end the department’s reliance on private prison companies. The Justice Department announced the policy change on the afternoon of Feb. 23, and didn’t immediately explain why the announcement came two days after the change.
Yates initially issued the memo phasing out contracts with private prison companies after the department’s inspector general concluded that prisons they managed had more “safety and security incidents” than their public counterparts.
Yates’ memo didn’t have an immediate or massive impact on the number of federal inmates housed in private prisons. The inspector general report said that as of December of 2015, private prisons housed 22,660 federal inmates. Currently, they house 21,000 federal inmates.
Still, Yates’ memo had powerful symbolism: It signified that the federal government had serious reservations about contracting with private companies to incarcerate people, and was gradually trying to change. Sessions’ move reverses that decision, and signals that—at least for the next four years—these companies won’t face the stigma that comes with federal distancing.
In his memo reversing Yates’ move, Sessions suggested that phasing out the use of private prisons could lead to overcrowding.
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” he wrote.
A Justice Department spokesman reiterated that sentiment in a statement provided to reporters.
“This will restore [the Bureau of Prisons’] flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs,” he said.
The companies that will benefit from the change told The Daily Beast they feel validated.
“Our company welcomes the memorandum by the Attorney General reinstating the continued use of privately operated facilities, which has been long-standing practice and policy at the Federal level,” said Pablo Paez, a spokesman for GEO Group. “We believe that the decision made last August was based on a misrepresentation of the report issued by the Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General.”
And Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CoreCivic, told The Daily Beast that his company is pleased with the change.
“The Attorney General’s announcement validates our position that the Department’s previous direction was not reflective of the high quality services we have provided to the federal government for decades,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to serve our federal government partners by helping them address our country’s most pressing correctional challenges.”
This change isn’t the only Trump Administration move that will increase the federal government’s reliance on private prison companies. Recent memos from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that the administration will dramatically expand the use of immigrant detention. And most immigrants in detention are kept in privately managed facilities—65 percent last year, according to USA Today.
Private prisons draw consistent criticism from activist groups, who hold that they have significantly worse outcomes for prisoners and detainees, and that incarceration is a core government function that shouldn’t be outsourced to publicly traded companies.
“Handing control of prisons over to for-profit companies is a recipe for abuse and neglect,” said David Fathi, who heads the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The memo from Attorney General Sessions ignores this fact. Additionally, this memo is a further sign that under President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, the United States may be headed for a new federal prison boom, fueled in part by criminal prosecutions of immigrants for entering the country.”
And the controversy became a campaign trail during the presidential contest. Hillary Clinton criticized them during one presidential debate, while Trump defended them. And one pro-Trump super PAC took contributions from a subsidiary of one private prison company, drawing criticism from activists and transparency groups.
By the end of the campaign, it was clear Trump was the last, best hope for private prison companies.
And, after just over a month in office, he’s delivered.