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Biden Orders End of Federally Run Private Prisons

President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Jan. 26, 2021.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Jan. 26, 2021.

President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice on Tuesday to end its reliance on private prisons and acknowledge the central role government has played in implementing discriminatory housing policies.

In remarks before signing the order, Biden said the U.S. government needs to change "its whole approach" on the issue of racial equity. He added that the nation is less prosperous and secure because of the scourge of systemic racism.

"We must change now," the president said. "I know it's going to take time, but I know we can do it. And I firmly believe the nation is ready to change. But government has to change as well."

Biden rose to the presidency during a year of intense reckoning on institutional racism in the U.S. The moves announced on Tuesday reflect his efforts to follow through with campaign pledges to combat racial injustice.

Housing policies

Beyond calling on the Justice Department to curb the use of private prisons and address housing discrimination, the new orders will recommit the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty and disavow discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community over the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a memorandum to take steps to promote equitable housing policy. The memorandum calls for HUD to examine the effects of Trump regulatory actions that may have undermined fair housing policies and laws.

Months before the November election, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era rule that required communities that wanted to receive HUD funding to document and report patterns of racial bias.

Stop 'profiting off of incarceration'

The order to end the reliance on privately-run prisons directs the attorney general not to renew Justice Department contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. The move will effectively revert the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration.

"This is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration," Biden said.

The more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately-managed facilities represent a small fraction of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated.

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had already opted not to renew some private prison contracts in recent months as the number of inmates dwindled and thousands were released to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Criticism of Biden move

GEO Group, a private company that operates federal prisons, called the Biden order "a solution in search of a problem."

"Given the steps the BOP had already announced, today's Executive Order merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic," a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, noted that the order does not end the federal government's reliance on privately-run immigration detention centers.

"The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises," Fathi said.

The memorandum highlighting xenophobia against Asian Americans is in large part a reaction to what White House officials say was offensive and dangerous rhetoric from the Trump administration. Trump, throughout the pandemic, repeatedly used xenophobic language in public comments when referring to the coronavirus.

This memorandum will direct Health and Human Services officials to consider issuing guidance describing best practices to advance cultural competency and sensitivity toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the federal government's COVID-19 response. It also directs the Justice Department to partner with AAPI communities to prevent hate crimes and harassment.