In one of his first acts as attorney general of the United States, former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions has reversed an Obama administration policy to reduce the reliance on private prisons.

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2017 file photo, then-Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attorney General Sessions has signaled his support for the federal government's use of private prisons, rescinding a memo meant to phase out their use. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 10, 2017 file photo, then-Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attorney General Sessions has signaled his support for the federal government’s use of private prisons, rescinding a memo meant to phase out their use. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

In August 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates sent a memo to the Federal Bureau of Prisons advising that the use of private prisons would be reduced given the declining prison population. Yates also cited an Inspector General’s report which found that private prisons lack the same level of safety, security and services as government-run facilities.

“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities,” Yates wrote.

The Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private prisons about a decade ago to accommodate a ballooning prison population. Due to the Obama administration’s efforts to retool federal sentencing policies and other initiatives, the prison population began a steady decline.

Yet, the Trump administration has backtracked on that guidance, referencing the correctional system’s “future needs.”

FILE – In this June 15, 2010 file photo, the Idaho Correctional Center is shown south of Boise, Idaho, operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled his support for the federal government’s use of private prisons, rescinding a memo meant to phase out their use. (AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, File)

“The (Obama administration) memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system. Therefore, I direct the bureau to return to its previous approach,” Sessions said in a letter to Thomas Kane, acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and dated Feb. 21.

Sessions’ move was not unexpected. Given Trump’s rhetoric about clamping down on criminals and immigrants, the number of detained persons in the U.S. is likely to spike. In fact, since Trump’s election, stocks of the two biggest private prison operators — CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America) and Geo Group – have risen by 140 percent and 98 percent, respectively, according to CNN.  

Democrats and civil rights groups are decrying the retrenchment on private prisons.

“This is how our corrupt political and campaign finance system works. Private prison companies invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and today they got their reward,” said former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a statement.

“At a time when we already have more people behind bars than any other country, Trump just opened the floodgates for private prisons to make huge profits by building more prisons and keeping even more Americans in jail. Our job: invest in education and jobs, not jails and incarceration.”

Civil rights groups have long criticized the mix of profit and prisons.

“The reliance on for-profit private prisons by the federal government is an embarrassing and degrading stain on our democracy,” said the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in a statement in response to Sessions’ memo. “Neither private entities nor the state should expect to profit from the individual and societal failures that mass incarceration represents.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO