On Friday morning, the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton announced they will no longer accept donations from federally registered lobbyists or PACs for private prison companies.
“When we’re dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don’t need private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration,” campaign spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa told ThinkProgress, explaining that Clinton will donate the large amount she has already received from these sources to a yet-to-be-named charity.
Hinojosa explained that the move is part of Clinton’s promise to “end the era of mass incarceration,” especially private prisons and private immigrant detention centers.
“She believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government,” Hinojosa said. “This is only one of many ways that she believes we need to re-balance our criminal justice and immigration systems.”
Yet the decision came after months of pressure from civil rights and immigrant justice groups, who launched online petitions and interrupted Clinton’s public events, demanding she cut ties with the private prison industry.
“Our message was, ‘You can’t be pro-immigrant and still have this blemish on your record,'” said Zenén Jaimes Pérez with United We Dream, one of many organizations that teamed up to press Clinton. “She had [campaign donation] bundlers who worked for the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, which run most of the immigrant detention centers in this country. For me, it was a big deal, because my dad was detained in a Geo facility. She was taking money from a group profiting from my family’s suffering.”
Activists are still concerned however, that Clinton has not yet released a criminal justice reform plan, though she has said one is currently in the works. Pérez told ThinkProgress he hopes the plan specifically addresses mandatory incarceration minimums for immigration-related civil violations, such as crossing the border without authorization. Black Lives Matter has also met multiple times with the Clinton campaign to demand reforms that address mass incarceration and police violence.
In September, Clinton’s 2016 rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a bill to ban the federal government from awarding contracts to private prisons, saying, “Private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state.” Sanders cited studies showing that private prisons, because of their profit motive, have an incentive to spend as little as possible on inmate care and rehabilitation. These companies also routinely pressure lawmakers to pass bills that will guarantee them more inmates by criminalizing low-level offenses.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is challenging Sanders and Clinton for the party’s nomination, has also called for the end of federal private prison contracts.
Following Clinton’s announcement, activists are turning their attention to other 2016 candidates.
“Now it’s time for the presidential candidates who still accept private prison money to follow suit and commit to a future where no one is imprisoned for profit,” said Matt Nelson with the Latino civil rights group Presente.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is perhaps the industry’s favorite, as many of the largest for-profit prison companies are headquartered in his home state. Rubio has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from private prison companies, going back to his time in the Florida legislature, and has hired consultants and staffers who used to work for these companies. During that time, he also steered a $110 million state contract to Geo Group.