President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety on May 25, 2022. This executive order is significant for a number of reasons. It touches on law enforcement accountability, First Step Act implementation, prison conditions and more. This Explainer focuses on prison conditions.
What does President Biden’s Executive Order say about prison conditions?
President Biden’s Executive Order also states that it is the Biden Administration’s policy “to ensure that conditions of confinement are safe and humane, and that those who are incarcerated are not subjected to unnecessary or excessive uses of force, are free from prolonged segregation, and have access to quality health care, including substance use disorder care and mental health care.”
The Biden Administration additionally recognizes that the government “must provide people who are incarcerated with meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and the tools and support they need to transition successfully back to society.” “Lowering barriers to reentry,” the Order says, “is essential to reducing recidivism and reducing crime.”
Finally, the Executive Order recognizes that “[i]ndividuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system face many barriers in transitioning back into society….” It specifically cites the following examples:
- “public benefits,”
- “health care,”
- “trauma-informed services and support,”
- “employment and occupational licensing,”
- “the ballot, and”
- “other critical opportunities.”
What does President Biden’s Executive Order actually do for prison conditions?
Consequently, the Executive Order orders the Attorney General to do a number of different things. First, the Attorney General “shall continue to implement the core public health measures, as appropriate, of masking, distancing, testing, and vaccination in Federal prisons” during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Executive Order is also clear in prohibiting BOP officials from using solitary confinement and facility-wide lockdowns as measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Additionally, the Executive Order reiterates the need to reduce prison populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, it instructs the Attorney general to “identify the number of individuals who meet the eligibility requirements under the CARES Act,” “the First Step Act” and other early-release laws “for release as part of the DOJ’s efforts to mitigate the impact and spread of COVID-19[.]” The Executive Order also requires the Attorney General to expand the sharing of public information “regarding vaccination, testing, infections, and fatalities due to COVID-19 among staff, prisoners, and detainees….”
Finally, the Executive Order directs the Department of Justice to make sure that the BOP
- uses restrictive housing rarely, fairly and in a reasonable manner,
- houses people in “the least restrictive setting necessary for their safety and the safety of staff, other prisoners and detainees, and the public,”
- houses incarcerated people “as close to their families as practicable” and
- fully implements the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
On paper, President Biden’s May 25, 2022 Executive Order could have a significant impact on the U.S. criminal justice system. In general, those impacts fall into three categories: law enforcement accountability, First Step Act implementation and prison conditions. If they prove effective, the provisions aimed at prison conditions could make a big difference. But will they? For now, it’s hard to say.