Alternatives to Detention to Be Run by Private Prison Contractors

In the wake of increased attention on the inhumane practice of detaining families seeking asylum, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this month announced it would be providing alternatives to family detention. The problem? It awarded the contract to a private prison contractor.

Geo Care LLC is part of a for-profit entity that accounts for 25 percent of all the roughly 34,000 immigration detention beds throughout the nation. It operates the Karnes County Family Residential Center, a 532-bed detention center for mothers and children in southern Texas that will more than double in space in the coming year. In 2014 the company generated $143.8 million in profits, including from its detention facilities.

Family detention centers have been decried as inhumane ever since they were resurrected last summer, in response to the influx of Central American refugees seeking asylum here. Announced earlier this year, the Family Case Management Program offered a real alternative. The proposed program indicated an acknowledgement by the Department of Homeland Security that holistic case management and access to social, medical, and legal services was a more successful and appropriate way to assist asylum seekers as they navigated the courts.

That’s why it was a shock that the Obama administration retreated to a position that continues to prioritize the interests of the for-profit private prison industry over the needs of those seeking safety in the United States.

ICE has acknowledged that it understands the unique experience community-based organizations bring to providing case management. But rather than awarding the contract to these organizations, ICE’s choice of Geo Care continues to allow profiting from vulnerable women and children seeking protection.

The fact is, there is no humane way to detain families. It has devastating and long-lasting effects on the mental health and well-being of those who are essentially imprisoned. Early in his administration, President Obama stopped sending families to the privately run T. Don Hutto detention center, all but ending a policy that ran contrary to laws that recognize the right of individuals to seek asylum from violence and persecution. (The facility, however, operated by another private prison industry giant, Corrections Corporation of America, still detains asylum-seeking women today.)

DHS claims to be reducing the time families spend in detention. Yet mothers and children who arrive in the United States seeking protection continue to be locked up far away from the lawyers and social workers who could help them navigate our complicated asylum system.

Typical alternatives to detention used by ICE require in-person or telephonic check-ins with enforcement officials, but can be as restrictive as a GPS ankle monitor. The Family Case Management Program is intended to formalize a different approach that facilitates much needed case management.

This month, the US Commission on Civil Rights released a scathing report criticizing the Obama administration’s treatment of families seeking asylum and calling for an end to family detention. The Family Case Management Program is a chance for the administration to change its punitive treatment of refugee families and acknowledge their needs and rights. Awarding the program to the same company that profits off of their detention is misguided, and fundamentally misses the point.