MICHIGAN — Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prisons and facilities. Biden said he did it an effort to address and fix systemic racism in America.
Activist Ed Genesis of Kalamazoo was excited to see it.
“I feel hopeful just seeing this,” Genesis said during a Zoom interview on Wednesday afternoon. “Private prisons was just wrong, period; just for somebody to be able to invest or build something for the pure gain of capitalism.”
Years ago, Genesis served an eight-month jail sentence and also did several stints at various halfway homes. Now, he’s currently the lead organizer for criminal justice reform on the west side of the state for Michigan United, a nonprofit dedicated to economic and racial justice.
“When I first got into the work I would always downplay and say, ‘Well I’ve only been to jail,’” Genesis recalled. “The guy that did 35 years, he told me he said, ‘Man, they took your freedom the way they took mine. They just had us in different facilities.’”
That conversation always stuck with Genesis, he said. He believes that private prisons and other facilities were created for the sole purpose of making money, and it unfairly targeted poor people and communities of color. Those communities then became the face of mass incarceration.
“America makes up just 5 percent of the world population but makes up an alarming close to 26 percent of incarcerated people,” he said. “The numbers are just ridiculous. Everybody can go to jail.”
University of Michigan Ann Arbor Law Professor Margo Schlanger agreed that the number of people in prison is extreme. She said in the 1970s, the overall prison population spiked but has plateaued over the last decade.
“There’s now a really broad agreement that that number is too high. You don’t have to believe in abolishing prisons to think that some people are doing too much time for crimes that occurred a long time ago,” Schlanger said during an interview with FOX 17 Wednesday morning over Zoom. “I think the thing that is next is considering who’s in prison and whether they really need to be there and trying to be smart about the use of what is a very damaging set of institutions.”
While Schlanger applauded President Biden for fulfilling his promise to act on racial equity and criminal justice reform, she stated that the order only impacts private prisons on the federal level.
That level is more privatized than most systems, she said, and it’s only 10 percent. She added that the order does not cover ICE detainees.
“The Bureau of Prisons has really found that its private prisons are less humane, and they provide less appropriate conditions of confinement than the public ones. And so I think it’s really important that they’re acting on that finding,” Schlanger said. “This is not the end of mass incarceration. This is not closing the prisons. This is not prison abolition. It’s an incremental reform that is carrying out a promise that the administration made during the campaign.”
Genesis said he’s grateful that Biden signed the order. It motivates him to continue to do his best work. Currently, he and Michigan United are working on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. However, for now, Biden’s decision to end contracts with private prisons he sees as a positive step forward.
“Just to hear somebody, especially President Joe Biden, who spoke very candidly on the crime bill in the ‘90s, for him to make this step, it does make me feel hopeful,” Genesis said. “This is like, ‘OK, yeah, you’re making a step in the right direction,' and this is a huge step in the right direction.”