U.S. Democratic 2020 candidate Warren calls for ban on private prisons

NEW YORK, June 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Friday called for the elimination of privately run prisons and detention centers at the federal and state level, arguing they too often place profits above safety.

The U.S. senator from Massachusetts also pledged to ban private contractors from charging inmates for routine services such as phone calls, bank transfers and healthcare, and to crack down on the practice of marking up prices for commissary items.

“There should be no place in America for profiting off putting more people behind bars or in detention,” Warren said in a statement in making the latest in a string of campaign policy proposals.

Warren, a leader of the party’s progressive wing, has made her policy rollouts on topics including student debt relief and higher taxes on the wealthy a cornerstone of her campaign. She is one of 24 Democratic candidates seeking the nomination to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.

The multibillion-dollar private prison industry has been the government’s answer to overcrowding and swelling budgets, but critics say the operators too often put profits above safety and benefit from a criminal justice system that treats minorities unfairly.

The United States has the world’s largest private prison population. Private prisons incarcerate about 9% of all U.S. prisoners, and 19% of all federal prisoners, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics.

Boca Raton, Florida-based Geo Group Inc is the nation’s largest for-profit corrections company, followed by Nashville-based CoreCivic Inc. The companies were not immediately available for comment.

Warren noted the private prison population grew five times as quickly as the overall prison population from 2000 to 2016. About 75% of all immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are also in private prisons, federal data shows.

Warren promised to cut all contracts with private operators at the federal level and force state and local governments to do the same or else lose federal funding. It was unclear whether Warren’s plan would cost U.S. taxpayers more money.

Private detention center operators have profited from Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration policies, which have led to large-scale detentions and separations of families, Warren said.

She noted that one private detention center, Caliburn International, recently hired Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine general. The company has faced scrutiny for its treatment of immigrants at its Homestead, Florida, facility.

Tetiana Anderson, a Caliburn spokeswoman, said the Homestead location is an emergency care shelter that provides the best possible care.

“The shelter provides educational classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, recreational fields and medical facilities, any suggestion that conditions at the Homestead emergency care shelter are ‘unsanitary’ and ‘prison-like’ is simply inaccurate,” Anderson said.

In addition to private operators, nearly 4,000 corporations make money off mass incarceration, Warren says.

“Incarcerating and detaining millions for profit doesn’t keep us safe. It’s time to do better,” she said.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker