Few profited more immediately from Donald Trump's election than the private-prison industry. On Nov. 9, the day after Mr. Trump won, the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic), the nation's biggest operator of private prisons, saw its stock price jump 43 percent; its leading competitor, the GEO Group, rose 21 percent. Stocks in those companies are up more than 100 percent since Election Day.
There was good reason for the optimism. During the campaign, Mr. Trump spun tales of crime-wracked cities and uncontrolled violence that, even though mostly divorced from reality, appealed to public fears. He also called the nation's prison system "a disaster" and said: "I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better." The industry responded by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Mr. Trump's candidacy.
On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions scrapped an order issued last August by President Barack Obama's Justice Department to phase out the government's use of private prisons, which increased substantially as exploding prison populations strained the capacity of state and federal facilities in the 1980s. At their peak, privately run prisons housed 30,000 federal inmates, or about 15 percent of the total federal prison population; by this May, they will hold around 14,000.
This policy reversal is indefensible given the track record of private prisons. Like a parasite, the industry fed off harsh and shortsighted sentencing policies, such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, that resulted in the largest prison population in the world. By 2014, the top two companies had revenues of $3.3 billion, nearly double what they made in 2006. They promised to provide incarceration at a lower price, but it didn't work out that way.
Horror stories abound of corruption and abuse at private prisons and detention facilities, where violence is common, and where underpaid and undermonitored guards act with impunity. Privately operated prisons compare poorly with government facilities on most key measures, as Sally Yates, Mr. Obama's deputy attorney general, explained in a memo accompanying last summer's order. They aren't as safe or secure for staff members or inmates. They don't provide the same level of rehabilitative services, like educational programs and job training, that help people lead law-abiding lives after prison. They don't even save substantially on costs.
Of course, the whole idea of privatized incarceration is morally repugnant. Imprisoning people should never be entrusted to those whose primary concern is profit and shareholder return.
One would think a hard-nosed executive like Mr. Trump, who won the White House in part because of his assurances that he would run government more like a business, would be loath to reward a contractor that does a bad job while saving no money. But for Mr. Trump, appearing tough on crime has always been the point, no matter what the facts are.
For now, the Justice Department's new policy will affect a relatively small number of people. Tens of thousands more state prisoners are housed in private prisons, and the federal prison population has been shrinking for four years. But private facilities are sure to start expanding again under the Trump administration, thanks in part to mass detention of undocumented immigrants and increased enforcement of federal laws against recreational marijuana use.
That's bad for communities, taxpayers and justice. But it's a boon for the private-prison industry, whose entire business model is built on locking up as many people as possible.