The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, otherwise known as the FIRST STEP Act, was signed into U.S. law in December 2018. The Act was presented to the public as federal prison reform that would address overcrowded prisons by shortening minimum sentences for non-violent criminals. The act also eases sentences of inmates incarcerated under the “three-strikes” law, and allows inmates to earn reduced sentences, while containing provisions for programs to reduce recidivism. In addition, the act obligates the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge to prisoners while also prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant federal prisoners. Receiving less attention is the clause that expands prison labor through the Federal Prison Industries, Inc., known as UNICOR, which leads to the exploitation of prisoners by for-profit or private prisons.
While the Act received bipartisan support, it should not be shocking that it was passed under Donald Trump’s presidency, which represents extreme neoliberalism and has allowed the reopening of federal for-profit private prisons and contracting with private prisons. The privatization of federal prisons results in the expansion of federal inmates as these institutions are motivated to maximize profits by having their prison population at maximum capacity. Private federal prison contracts are awarded to Trump supporters and donors who benefit from owning and operating facilities that house federal prisoners, including children and families.
President Trump touts passage of the FIRST STEP Act as a gift to Black and Brown peoples who are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and contribute to the ranking of the U.S. as the nation with the highest incarcerated population in the world. However, almost daily, through divisive coded and explicit language that embraces White nationalism, Trump has further pitted law enforcement against communities of color. With his disparaging rhetoric, Trump has criminalized and dehumanized communities by openly encouraging police brutality and championing White Supremacy.
The FIRST STEP Act only applies to federal inmates, who account for under ten percent of the entire prisoner population in the U.S. It also does not address first time sentencing nor does it address the disproportionate rates of incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. The Act also does not provide additional funding to the Bureau of Prisons to carry out the programming that it specifies. This further opens the door to private prisons that do not function under the same guidelines as government run prisons and often leave the public in the dark regarding their effectiveness in reducing recidivism. GEO Group and CoreCivic, rival companies that own and operate private prisons, supported the FIRST STEP Act as they recognized the profit-making opportunities created by the new legislation.
The public needs to understand that the FIRST STEP Act, like most of this regime’s policies, are motivated by market-driven endeavors that dehumanize populations while profiting and rewarding the extremely wealthy supporters of Trump and the GOP. While there are positive elements in the Act, the privatization of government functions transfer public funds into the pockets of wealthy businesspersons and stockholders. In this case, it occurs through for-profit prisons. Humanity is ours to cherish and preserve.