During his presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) harped on an issue that no focus group would have recommended: the rise of private prisons. After Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was revealed to make an average profit of $3,356 per inmate, Sanders hardly finished a speech without attacking the system.
“We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration,” Sanders said in a March 2016 statement. “Companies should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars.”
On Thursday, after the Justice Department announced it would end relationships with private prisons, Sanders was one of the first politicians to celebrate. "It is exactly what I campaigned on as a candidate for president," Sanders said in a statement. "It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state."
The DOJ's decision could also affect one of Sanders's current projects — getting as many of his allies as possible elected to higher office. On Aug. 30, polls will close in the South Florida district currently represented by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). Her opponent, former Hill staffer and current economics professor Tim Canova, has been endorsed by Sanders and had donors directed his way. While Canova welcomed the DOJ's decision, he was wary of how Wasserman Schultz might use it to neutralize his own campaign against private prisons and her support from the industry.
"If she does, I don't think it will resonate with voters," said Canova. "Voters in Southwest Ranches [a community in the district] know all about her support for a private detention center in the city. The DOJ's decision wouldn’t apply to state and local or even ICE facilities, so ongoing projects can still resonate here."
If elected to Congress — the district is drawn to heavily favor the winner of the Democratic primary — Canova suggested that he could hold down the growth of all private prisons by challenging funding to the states.
"If states want federal grants, they should have to phase out private prisons," he said.
Absentee voting is already underway in the Wasserman Schultz-Canova race, but it's unclear if Sanders will find time to campaign for his candidate. As the Democrats' presidential primary ended, Sanders inked a deal for a book to be published after the November election; he has largely avoided public events this month, using the Senate's August recess to plow through the book.