Joe Biden signed an executive order on Tuesday that called on his Department of Justice to not renew any of their contracts with private prisons.
The move is seen as a first step toward tackling the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. The proliferation of private prisons—coupled with strictness regarding sentencing and heavy-handed enforcement of drug laws—have helped make America’s prison population the largest in the world. Biden made an initial move away from decades worth of carceral policy with the signing of the order.
The federal prison order was one of four that Biden signed today in an attempt to start working on the issue of systemic racism.
“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 before the orders were signed. “I firmly believe the nation is ready to change, but government has to change as well.”
The DOJ has contracts with 12 private prisons overseeing around 14,000 inmates, according to Forbes. The order only applies to those 12 prisons and not any other agreements with government agencies and individual states. As of 2019, there were 116,000 prisoners being housed in private prisons in the United States.
Both Biden and his adviser Susan Rice talked about the order as an opening salvo against a deeply entrenched issue.
“This is the first step to stop corporations profiting off incarceration that is less humane and less safe,” said Biden. “It’s just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic plans in our criminal justice system.”
In addition to the private prisons order, Biden signed three more orders that pushed back against pernicious racism in government functions. One of these orders demanded more regular communication between the US government agencies and tribal governments. A memorandum pushed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to perform an audit of all the ways the Trump administration might have undermined fair housing regulations. And another memo asked Health and Human Services to develop guidelines of “cultural competency” for interacting with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under the COVID-19 pandemic.