DOJ Divestment from Private Prisons isn’t Worth Praise

Private prisons

On Tuesday, Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice (what a silly name) to divest from private prisons in a ploy to ‘fix’ systemic racism in the criminal legal system (this coming from the man who wrote the 1994 Crime Bill and lauded tough on crime politicians and policies). This move was celebrated by liberals and faux progressives despite it not making a dent in the widespread criminalization we see crippling millions of families every day. Politicians and reformist orgs/individuals have advocated for the abolition of private facilities because it’s a catchy demand that doesn’t actually require the entirety of the carceral system’s demolition. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (a great resource for accurate and detailed policing and incarceration stats) fewer than 9% of all incarcerated people in America are locked in private prisons, which comes out to approximately 34,000 people. And in reference to Biden’s order targeting DOJ-only affiliated private facilities, 11 prisons would be affected, which house 14,000 people. What’s even worse is that Biden’s order does not cover privately run immigration facilities (which the majority are), so the “kids in cages” that Democrats used as talking points during the campaign season will stay locked up with no way out.

In a fantastic 2019 New York Times profile (one of the only ones coming from that godforsaken news site), abolitionist and scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore explains that private prisons are not the reasons for mass criminalization, but rather “They are parasites on it. Which doesn’t make them good. Which doesn’t make them not culpable for the things of which they are culpable. They are parasites.” The DOJ divesting from private facilities means that those 14,000 people will more than likely be moved to public or state prisons or county jails as no one will be released due to this order. Biden’s carceral and punitive beliefs lead him to write “We must ensure that our Nation’s incarceration and correctional systems are prioritizing rehabilitation and redemption…. However, privately operated criminal detention facilities consistently underperform Federal facilities with respect to correctional services, programs, and resources. We should ensure that time in prison prepares individuals for the next chapter of their lives.” No matter what he or his administration would have anyone believe, Joe Biden is an advocate for heavy policing and incarceration and he will continue to ensure that America runs on the same amount of carceral violence that D*nald Tr*mp loved.

This Executive Order does nothing to address why people cause harm and end up in facilities across America. There is no mention of the violence of racial capitalism, white supremacy, or imperialism and we know there never will be. The focus for Biden is completely on individuals and their actions instead of what drives them to do what they do. Scarily enough, in a New York Times article about the EO, the Federal prison staffers’ union celebrated Biden’s move. The article stated “Mr. Biden’s prisons order won praise from the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents 30,000 federal prison workers across the country.” Any move thousands of prison guards applaud is worthy enough of at least speculation and imminent dread. Biden would like the public to believe that public facilities are somehow safer and have better living conditions than private ones. The debate on ending partnerships with private prisons is easier to have when the majority comes to an agreement, but Biden as always falls flat because private prisons aren’t the problem; prisons themselves are. All forms of incarceration are violent and exist only to punish rather than heal harm. And when the government decides that public prisons are the right choice to hold people, they legitimize state kidnapping, torture, and cruelty. Our goal is the complete abolition of policing, prisons, surveillance, and the military, and Biden’s Executive Order does nothing to get us to our destination.