Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Thursday his strong support for the federal government's continued use of private prisons — reversing a late-Obama-era directive to discontinue their use.
The news, which inspired a surge in the stocks of major private prison companies, broke about one hour after Minnesota Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, announced plans for a bill that would direct the state to lease or buy Prairie Correctional Facility, a for-profit prison in Appleton, a small community in west-central Minnesota.
The timing was a coincidence, but both announcements could be key to the now-uncertain future of Prairie Correctional, Minnesota's only private prison.
The 1,600-bed facility has been empty since 2010 due to a lack of contracts. Lang says the prison could help solve overcrowding in Minnesota's prisons and revive the down economy in the state's western region.
"We need to be looking at all available options for easing the burden on our corrections system, as well as putting people back to work," Lang said in his statement announcing the bill. "Putting this functional facility in Appleton to use — and bringing jobs back to the community — simply makes sense."
Similar bills failed last year amid backlash from members of the public, correctional officer unions and mostly DFL lawmakers who protested the prospect of the state doing business with the facility's controversial owner, Corrections Corporation of America — recently rebranded as CoreCivic — the nation's largest private prison company. Critics like the American Civil Liberties Union say CCA has failed to provide adequate treatment and other resources for prisoners, citing lawsuits and federal investigations they say point to a pattern of bad practices. But with Republican majorities in both chambers, proponents believe the bill could receive more support this year.
While he doesn't know how the late-breaking Sessions announcement could impact his bill, Lang said Thursday he is "fearful" the federal government could be looking to contract with the facility if Minnesota doesn't make a move.
"I think it maybe puts a little time crunch on it," he said.
The federal prison population — now just under 190,000 — has been dropping due in part to changes in federal sentencing policies over the past three years. When then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed federal prisons to phase out contracts with for-profit companies last August, she said they were less necessary given declines in the inmate population. In his reversal order, Sessions made no mention of declining prison populations, creating speculation that trends could soon change.
"That makes you think, are they expecting a surge in the prison population?" said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel for the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, who is writing a book on private prisons. "To me that hints at likely legislation that might be introduced to increase [populations]."
Private prisons hold about 22,100 federal inmates, or 12 percent of the total prison population, according to the Justice Department.
The federal government started to rely on private prisons in the late 1990s because of crowding. Many of the inmates in private facilities are foreign nationals held for immigration offenses. The Yates policy did not extend to prisons used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which hold tens of thousands of immigrants awaiting deportation.
Immigration and human rights advocates have long complained about conditions in private prisons. An inspector general audit from last August said problems at private prisons included property damage, injuries and the death of a corrections officer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report