On August 29, 2016, US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head Jeh Johnson issued a statement directing a DHS Advisory Council to evaluate whether immigration detention operations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should end the use of private prisons. Johnson instructed that investigators look at “all factors concerning ICE’s detention policy and practice, including fiscal considerations.” This call for review came just two weeks after the Department of Justice announced its own move away from private prisons.
While advocates wait for DHS’s report, set to be released on November 30, the US is still waking up to a new political reality that is likely to bring a sea change in immigration policy with the election of Donald Trump. Trump campaigned for the presidency on a platform that put strict enforcement of US immigration laws front and center. He has said that he plans to deport between 2 to 3 million immigrants immediately. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this could require an estimated 164,000 detention beds — more than 110,000 more than ICE has available today.
Tellingly, while many stocks plunged on the news of Trump’s election, the stock of one of the biggest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA — recently rebranded CoreCivic) surged by nearly 58 percent.
In light of this new reality, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome from the DHS Advisory Council, or that a positive recommendation would lead to de-privatization. But now more than ever, it is vitally important that we look at the policies that are driving for-profit detention and continue demanding their elimination. Regardless of what the next administration plans to do, the use of private prisons is dangerous, as the Department of Justice inspector general himself declared in his August 2016 report.
The American Friends Service Committee, a leading national immigrant rights organization, and many others, have documented numerous recurrent allegations of abuse and neglect in privately run prisons. About 73 percent of people in ICE custody are housed within private facilities in deplorable conditions that have caused the death of dozens of immigrants in recent years. For instance, CCA’s Eloy Detention Center in Arizona has seen 14 deaths of detainees since 2003.
Unfortunately, detention is on the rise. Recently, thousands of Haitians entered the US after leaving Haiti because of a devastating earthquake in 2010. They’ve made their way through South America and many have died along the way. DHS is now scrambling for thousands of new beds to incarcerate Haitians seeking asylum. On October 28, DHS announced that about 7,000 Haitian immigrants have been processed by the US Custom and Border Protection (CBP) and transferred to ICE for detention.
Also troubling are recent news reports announcing that DHS is reopening two privately operated jails that had been emptied of federal prisoners after the Justice Department’s investigation, including New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Center. In a misleading press release targeting investors and published by Nasdaq on October 31, CCA declared it “already has an experienced, well-trained workforce at the Cibola County Corrections Center which, for many years, has provided an exceptional level of service to the Bureau of Prison (BOP).” This is one of the same facilities where documented abuses caused the DOJ to move away from the use of private prisons.
The evidence of ICE’s unnecessary overreliance on for-profit prison corporations to expand its detention capacity is overwhelming and indisputable.
Increased use of private detention is a result of aggressive enforcement and detention policies that have resulted in the highest number of people detained for immigration violations in history. There are currently more than 42,000 people in immigration detention, including entire families and thousands of people seeking asylum. This is a key factor in the extraordinary profits reaped by private prison companies over the past two years.
One particularly troubling policy is the “detention quota,” which requires ICE to maintain 34,000 spaces for immigration detention every single day. The quota was mandated by Congress through the DHS Appropriations Act of 2010 and continues to appear in every annual DHS appropriations bill. Striking down this quota is a necessary step towards eliminating private detention.
Advocates remain hopeful that DHS’s review will highlight the necessity of eliminating privately run detention centers and will address the policies that keep these detention centers full. We hope that DHS will review contracts with county jails, which have had their own share of complaints. And we hope their report will include recommendations for the incoming administration with concrete ways to substantially reduce reliance on detention. While eliminating private prisons would be a step in the right direction, we also urge scrutiny of human rights abuses in all publicly run detention centers, and an end to mass detention in its entirety.
As those of us working for the rights and dignity of immigrants face the terrifying reality of Trump’s immigration policies, there are actions that DHS can take before President Obama leaves office. The DHS Advisory Council should make a strong public recommendation against the use of private facilities. And ICE should reverse its current trend of expanding immigration detention and instead institute policy changes to release those who are already being detained.
We call on the Obama administration to take these steps. The health and safety of our communities depends on it.