US attorney general Jeff Sessions officially rescinded a memo issued by former president Barack Obama’s Department of Justice to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. According to Sessions, the move impaired the Bureau of Prison’s “ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
The August 2016 memo from then-deputy attorney general Sally Yates directed the Bureau of Prisons to either cancel private prison contracts or substantially reduce them when they came up for renewal. Advocates saw it as a step forward, although in the next months the agency continued to quietly extend the contracts anyway, as Quartz reported. Now, it has the official stamp of approval to go on working with private prison companies, which have been criticized in the past by advocates, researchers, and a report from the Department of Justice itself as inefficient, unsafe, and sometimes inhumane.
Sessions’ decision doesn’t come as a surprise. President Donald Trump has said he supports prison privatization, and his election has been a boon for these companies, who have seen their stocks skyrocket. The love goes both ways: Geo Group and CoreCivic, the two largest private prison operators, donated large sums to Trump’s inauguration.
It’s not clear what Sessions means by the ”future needs” of the Bureau of Prisons. But if the Trump administration continues its anti-immigration crackdown, that could lead to an increased need for beds for immigrants with criminal convictions. As it is, nearly half of all federal prosecutions are illegal entry and reentry convictions, and most of the federal inmates held in private facilities are immigrants, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Pablo Paez, spokesman for the Geo Group said his company welcomed Sessions’ memorandum. “We believe that the decision made last August was based on a misrepresentation of the report issued by the Department of Justice,” he said in a statement to Quartz. “We are proud of our long-standing partnership with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and our strong record of providing safe, secure, and humane care to the men and women entrusted to us.”