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The woman with a plan’s got another one: abolish federal private prisons and detention facilities.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the progressive who’s surged in the polls after a slew of policy proposals, announced Friday morning that, as president, she would end all contracts that the Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have with prison providers. At the state level, Warren would cut off federal grant money to states that continue to use private detention facilities. Meanwhile, states and localities that obey the new rules would be eligible for additional federal funding.
Separately, Warren would crack down on private contractors who work in public facilities. She would forbid contractors from charging money from incarcerated people for basic services, like making phone calls (essentially a luxury in some prisons) as well as healthcare.
Warren also said she would work to prohibit “exploitative price markups” on commissary items and do away with charges for probation or supervision services.
“No one should have to pay for their own incarceration, whether it’s inside a facility or outside of one,” Warren wrote in a blog post announcing the proposal.
She’s not the first 2020 presidential candidate to call for the elimination of private prisons. Her most ideologically close opponent and Senate colleague, Bernie Sanders, did that back in 2017. Right after Warren announced her proposal, Bernie gave a speech that called for private prison abolition. His press secretary noted, in a tweet, that Bernie had been “on it since day one.”
But what sets Warren apart, as usual, is her detailed proposal for how she would do it.
Warren’s surprisingly successful campaign apparently has Bernie feeling the heat: He tweeted an implicit dig at Warren on Wednesday, that only he’s not part of the Democrat’s corporate wing. (Bernie denies the tweet was about Warren.) Warren, who calls herself a “capitalist to my bones,” laughed at the notion of calling herself a socialist, which places her a bit to the right of Bernie, a self-avowed democratic socialist.
Regardless of “who’s more left,” Warren’s plan is sure to excite her growing base. Private prisons — an industry worth at least $5 billion — make huge amounts of cash by locking people up with little public oversight. Private prisons are notorious for inmate suicides and violence on their grounds. Warren said she’ll close a Freedom of Information Act loophole that allows private prison contractors to avoid public records requests.
“I’ve been after these companies to come clean about their practices and human rights abuses. Every answer just raises more questions,” Warren said in a blog post announcing her proposal.
“We didn’t get here by chance. Washington works hand-in-hand with private prison companies, who spend millions on lobbyists, campaign contributions, and revolving-door hires — all to turn our criminal and immigration policies into ones that prioritize making them rich instead of keeping us safe.”
“Babies are getting sick and dying”
Warren expressed particular alarm at the fact that the private prison population has grown at about five times the rate of the general prison population since the year 2000. Her plan would establish an independent Prison Conditions Monitor agency to oversee contractors who work with federal prisons and subjected them to regular audits.
“I’ll direct the Department of Justice to prosecute companies that blatantly violate the law,” she said. “And I’ll make sure companies are held accountable no matter who’s in the White House by allowing people to bring a lawsuit against abusive contractors who violate their rights.”
The senator from Massachusetts highlighted the use of private detention facilities for detained immigrants. By some estimates, 73% of immigrants detained in the U.S. are in private facilities. Warren blamed President Trump’s policies on immigration — such as family separation — for encouraging private prisons to make money on the backs of undocumented families.
In 2017, for example, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama administration directive to reduce the use of for-profit, private prisons. Sessions argued that these prisons needed to continue existing due to a rise in crime, even though that rise doesn’t exist.
“They impose forced labor on immigrants just to make a buck,” Warren said. “Multiple detainees have committed suicide. And now, under Trump, babies are getting sick and dying from their detention centers.” At least five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.
Warren’s “I’ve got a plan for that” strategy has been paying off for the senator. whose presidential campaign got off to a rocky start after she released a DNA test to respond to President Trump’s taunts about her claims of Native ancestry. She’s now consistently polling in second or third place in the primaries and gaining ground on Sanders and frontrunner Joe Biden. Even President Trump acknowledged that Warren’s “doing pretty well.”
Some of her other policy proposals include: a wealth tax on the hyper-rich, universal childcare, allowing the federal government to manufacture prescription drugs, breaking up tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, the elimination of the filibuster, affordable housing, free undergraduate tuition at public universities, and mass-scale student debt cancellation.
Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress presidential forum in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)