Prison officials patrol around the United States Penitentiary at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, US on Jan 15, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

The United States is phasing out the use of private prisons in a move advocates are applauding but also criticizing as not shrinking the federal prison system but just transferring inmates to public facilities. The country has the largest prison population in the world.

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Justice Department not to renew its contracts with private prisons, to “reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate”.

The order also notes the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on people of color.

Biden’s presidential campaign made some commitments on criminal justice reform, one of which was ending the use of private prisons, with few details yet to be made public.

Private prisons have long been used by state and federal authorities. Advocates decried the use of the private detainment sector, arguing the facilities put inmates at greater risk for abuse.

A 2016 report by the Justice Department found private prisons to have high rates of assault, use of force incidents and lockdowns.

More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the US, representing 698 per 100,000 residents, which is higher than any other country, a 2020 Prison Policy Initiative report said.

Private prisons are a $1 billion industry in the US. GEO Group and CoreCivic are two of the biggest private prison companies, operating a majority of the facilities under the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP.

GEO Group called Biden’s order “a solution in search of a problem” and said that the BOP had chosen not to renew some private prison contracts in the past few months.

Facing increased scrutiny, the for-profit prison industry has established an advocacy group aimed at changing public opinion that has soured on the industry.

The BOP said there are 11 private prisons currently under contract by the Justice Department. Among the nearly 152,000 people held in federal custody, over 14,000 are housed at privately operated facilities, the BOP said.

John Pfaff, a law professor at the Fordham University School of Law, criticized Biden’s order as being “symbolic” with “little impact on any issue of racial justice and the system”.

“The symbolism carries the very real risk of making us blind to the nearly identical incentives of the public prison sector, and the public side is so much vaster in scope,” he told NBC News.

Despite Biden’s order, states will be free to continue contracting with private prisons.