Biden Moves to End Federal Private Prisons as Part of Racial Equity Plan

The president’s wave of executive orders continued Tuesday with a directive winding down federal use of private prisons and three others targeting systemic racism.   

President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday, with Vice President Kamala Harris to his left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden issued four executive orders Tuesday aimed at removing the stain of systemic racism from nearly every aspect of American life, including one barring the Department of Justice from signing new contracts with private prisons.

“Advancing equity has to be everyone’s job,” Biden said from the State Dining Room of the White House while signing the orders.

Achieving greater racial equity was a plank of Biden’s campaign platform. In the first hours of his presidency, he issued a memo directing the whole federal government to begin assessing how systemic racism has infected institutions and dragged down quality of life for millions of Americans of color.

Tuesday’s executive orders build out those recommendations more specifically.

As far as private prisons go, Biden directed the Department of Justice to return to its posture from 2016 under then-President Barack Obama of phasing out private prison use by the federal government.

Former President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s directive as soon as he was in office and appointed Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department. During his single term, Trump’s actions doubled private prison revenues, securing in 2019 alone almost $600 million in federal spending for the GEO Group, a for-profit corrections facility operator. By comparison, $260 million was spent on the GEO Group in 2014 under Obama, according to government funding tracker USAspending.

Concerns over such a critical policy changing with each new administration was momentarily, albeit vaguely, addressed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday during a midday press conference. Short on specifics, Psaki told reporters it would be up to legislators in Congress to ensure the order on private prisons is codified into law.

Over 2 million Americans are incarcerated and a disproportionate number of them are minorities.  

“There is broad consensus that our current system of mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer. To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities,” the executive order states.

Among the quartet of orders, Biden also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to formally scrutinize federal housing policies put into place under Trump. Biden has asked officials to look out for discriminatory policies such as redlining, which is the practice of denying investment or loans to someone because they live in or near a poor community.

Another measure aimed at promoting racial equity orders the Department of Health and Human Services to eliminate any instance of anti-Asian bias that may have been built into the federal government’s Covid-19 response under Trump.

The former president often referred to the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, as the “Kung flu” or the “China virus” during campaign events and on Twitter. In the months that followed, the derogatory term was defended by the White House press office on multiple occasions despite evidence of growing harassment and violence against Asian Americans. It is estimated at least 2 million Asian Americans have served as first responders during the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, lauded Biden’s executive orders in a statement Tuesday, giving particular attention to the one targeting anti-Asian rhetoric.

“Under this new policy, the Department of Justice will partner with Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities to prevent harassment and hate crimes, and the Department of Health and Human Services and new Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force will consider guidance on best practices to ensure that these communities are treated with sensitivity and respect,” Hoyer said. “We must continue to root out the evils of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry whenever they arise in our country.”

In the final of four racial equity executive orders issued Tuesday, Biden also directed federal agencies to “reestablish federal respect for tribal sovereignty” and strengthen the “nation-to-nation relationship” between the federal government and American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

“I ran for president because I believe we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation and the simple truth is, our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist,” Biden said.

Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, told reporters Tuesday the moment was not lost on her as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and descendent of slaves. She said the entire U.S. government must dedicate itself to addressing racial equity for all.

“These aren’t just feel-good policies,” Rice said. “Investing in equity is good for economic growth and creates jobs for all Americans.”

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