It’s not surprising that Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a beeline to reverse one of the Obama administration’s policy changes on prisons. His conservative record leaves no indication that he’d want to get the government out of the prison business, the way the Justice Department under his predecessor Loretta Lynch did.
So the memo he sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, rescinding the order of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (who President Trump fired last month), allowing government contracts with private prisons to expire was one of the many things from the previous White House that the Trump administration intends to turn upside down.
But Sessions’ order to continue on the previous course with prisons is peculiar because it renews the government’s — and thus taxpayer — investment in the prison industrial complex, an institution author Michelle Alexander compared to slavery in her book “The New Jim Crow.”
Before she was sacked, Yates said there were 13 private prison facilities in the United States. Three private corporations, Corrections Corporation of America; GEO Group, Inc.; – both public — and Management and Training Corporation, which remains privately owned, operate the contracted facilities. Government expenditures on them rose from $562 million in 2011 to $639 million in 2014, according to a report released by the Office of the Inspector General. This means that putting people in jail was certainly a profitable venture for them, but there’s no explanation as to what the government gets out of it.
According to federal statistics, about 73,000 or 37 percent of all inmates housed in federal prison facilities are Black. But the reason the Obama administration wanted to get out of the prison business was because of the declines in the federal population from a high of 220,000 in 2013 (with 30,000 in private facilities) down to about 195,000.
However, Sessions’ reasoning for reversing everything is because he feels Yates’ order “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
And that’s what is so disturbing. The attorney general seems to anticipate that there will be a need to actually expand the prison system — perhaps making more room for people his office intends on incarcerating — rather than shrink it to match the declines in the population, which also go along with an overall declining crime rate.
This could easily be coupled with President Trump’s threat to “send in the feds” to Chicago if it could not curb its rampant violent crime epidemic. Trump’s words were interpreted by many as an assertion that he would militarize parts of the city suffering the worst rates. One Chicago Tribune writer thinks this is a good idea.
So where would federal officials house inmates once this type of policy is enacted? Not the Cook County Jail.
Now, the intention here isn’t to present any type of conspiracy theory, but it’s worth noticing that one of the earliest acts of this government agency is to reverse the reduction of prisons and move toward their expansion as if government’s role is to strengthen the institution that has done more to cripple Black communities than any other.
So it would be interesting to see what Sessions’ plan is for actually keeping people out of prison, if there is any. The Trump administration has indicated that it would go after recreational marijuana users harder, despite its decriminalization in several states. Weed is still a federal Schedule 1 drug in the government’s eyes. Does that mean Sessions wants to toss anyone who lights up in the federal pen?
And that gives us one of possibly many reasons the Justice Department’s policy on private prisons has changed. It’s hard to tell right now which direction the policy will go, but it’s clear that while Sessions is attorney general, the government will remain a friend to the prison biz.
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of EBONY.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.