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The Real Impact Of Biden's Private Prisons Executive Order


And I'm Audie Cornish in Washington, where, in his first week in office, President Biden issued a number of executive orders. One of them directs the Department of Justice not to renew its contracts with privately operated prisons. That would affect about 14,000 federal inmates currently in privately run facilities. Now, those who study mass incarceration in the U.S. point out that over 120,000 inmates are already in public federal prisons, and they're wondering what kind of impact this action will really have. With us to talk more is David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. Welcome to the program.

DAVID FATHI: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: We're going to get into the details of this, but first, your reaction to this news. I mean, this is your area.

FATHI: Well, the order to the Justice Department to end its contracts with private prisons is a very important step. It will not by itself end mass incarceration, but it will curb an industry that has a financial interest in perpetuating mass incarceration.

CORNISH: You just said something I want to follow up on, which is the private industry and its effect on the kind of infrastructure of prisons itself, right? How can this make a difference in that area?

FATHI: Our criminal justice policy should be driven by what's best for public safety, not what's best for the bottom line of private corporations. So to the extent that this week's order curbs an industry that has a vested interest in maintaining and perpetuating mass incarceration, that is a very positive step.

CORNISH: The executive order, as we said, terminates federal contracts with private prisons. Does that mean that those prisons will be gone? How will that affect how they're run?

FATHI: Well, this order is a very important step, but it is only a first step. For one thing, we - it is unclear what the timing will be of the phase-out of private prisons. The order directs the attorney general not to renew contracts with private prisons. So if the Justice Department simply lets these contracts expire at the end of their normal term, that's a process that will take a number of years. So it will be a very slow process. Another important gap is that this order does not apply to immigration detention, where more than 80% of detained immigrants are held in private, for-profit prisons. So extending this order to ICE detention is an obvious next step and an urgent next step that needs to happen.

CORNISH: So just so we're clear, it's - you're saying that this wouldn't cover the federal use of private facilities for immigrant detention. And states have the majority of prisoners, right? I mean, an executive order like this really only affects a small percentage of all incarcerated people.

FATHI: That's right. It only directly affects the approximately 10% of all US prisoners who are held in federal custody, but it has effects beyond that. This will be a very serious blow to the private prison industry. The federal government is their largest single customer. And also, the state prison systems tend to look to the federal system as a model, as a leader.

CORNISH: You know, as you said earlier, you called this a first step. And after all, there are some contracts that won't even come up - right? - in the time that the Biden administration is in place. So this - we may not see the effects of this for many years. What are you going to be listening for from the Biden administration when it comes to prison reform?

FATHI: Well, the Biden administration - the Biden-Harris campaign made a number of significant commitments on criminal justice reform, one of which was ending the use of private prisons. They also promised to improve prison conditions, to eliminate solitary confinement, to end the federal death penalty. And we will be holding them to those promises and urging them to go further, to cut the bloated US prison population, which is the largest in the entire world. So we will be looking to the administration for significant and lasting reform of the criminal legal system.

CORNISH: David Fathi is director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU. Thank you for your time.

FATHI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.