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New Jersey Activists Won a Ban on Private Prisons, Now Biden Wants to Reverse It

The Biden administration is backing CoreCivic in a lawsuit against a state law banning contracts with private prisons.

President Joe Biden is seen walking to the Oval Office on August 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

“There should be no private prisons, period, none, period. That’s what they’re talking about — private detention centers. They should not exist. And we are working to close all of them.” That’s what President Joe Biden said during an April 2021 speech in Georgia, where he found himself confronted by immigrant rights activists.

Two years later, it’s clear that those were just empty words: The Biden administration is now throwing its support behind a CoreCivic lawsuit in New Jersey claiming that a 2021 state law prohibiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with private prisons is unconstitutional. ICE and the Biden administration are conspiring with CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private jailers, to extend the contract of a converted warehouse immigrant detention jail with nearly 30 years of documented abuse.

Today, as a court decides the case, people from across New Jersey are gathering outside the courthouse in Trenton to stand up against CoreCivic, ICE and the Biden administration.

Cruelty at Elizabeth Detention Center

The Elizabeth Detention Center is a personal issue for us. Hidden between warehouses and at the end of a lonely alley, it is one of over 200 facilities across the country where the federal government jails undocumented immigrants. Over the years, our organization, Movimiento Cosecha, as well as other state groups, have been organizing against the deportation and detention of the members of our community.

We know firsthand what it is like to get a phone call in the middle of the night from a family member saying their loved one has been detained. We have heard the stories of cruelty that people live while inside the immigrant jail: people being denied access to medical care, not being protected from COVID-19, being verbally abused, and more.

Immigration detention is designed to be cruel, because to this day, undocumented immigrants continue to be seen as subhuman and as commodities to profit from. CoreCivic makes profits for every immigrant person locked in its jail. Yet, as long as ICE has existed, we have resisted; New Jersey communities have always organized against them.

In 2020, as people struggled to fight COVID-19 and meet the needs of their communities, and as activists and immigrant rights advocates in the state mobilized against injustice, a movement was born. Inside the state’s immigrant jails, there was no plan to manage COVID-19 contagion. People who got sick were often left unattended and neglected, and reports of abuse seemed to climb higher than any wall. Nothing seemed to crack the immigration jails — until the public pressure from inside and outside did.

Advocates Push Back

The often-forgotten detained immigrants gained allies across the state and across the country, and everyday people raised awareness of the horrendous conditions people were being put through.

We don’t have direct power over the contract the Biden administration has with the private facility run by CoreCivic; it is business they want to do with no input from the communities of New Jersey.

In 2021, the amount of public support garnered against publicly run immigrant jails lead to the closure of three such facilities in the Garden State, and legislation to prohibit a renewal of contracts with private prisons was signed into state law. The Elizabeth Detention Center has been open since 1994 and since then, organizations, advocates and community members have demanded its closure. This is a fight that has been going on since before we got involved, and it is a fight we have inherited now. Organizations like First Friends NYNJ, American Friends Service Committee, and others have been fighting all these decades, voicing their outcries over the cruelty of detention centers in the state. Actions to shut down these centers have taken place over the years, from hunger strikes and rallies, to marches and civil disobedience.

The movement resulted in Assembly Bill 5207, which bans all private immigration detention contracts. The publicly run detention centers in New Jersey’s Hudson, Essex and Bergen Counties that closed due to passage of this law were directly run by the county, influenced by its local officials and voters. What makes the Elizabeth Detention Center different is that this center has a contract with ICE. Though we are able to close the ones we have direct power over, the Biden administration claims that closing the Elizabeth Detention Center would be catastrophic to our national security. We don’t have direct power over the contract the Biden administration has with the private facility run by CoreCivic; it is business they want to do with no input from the communities of New Jersey. Though the contract for the Elizabeth Detention Center ends at the end of August, the court will decide today whether CoreCivic should be granted an injunction against this anti-detention law, thereby allowing the Elizabeth Detention Center to receive an extension to its contract.

Biden’s Betrayal

President Biden has also chosen a side. The administration has aligned with CoreCivic, filing a brief in support of the suit, imposing the president’s agenda against the clear wishes of New Jersey residents. Moreover, under the Biden administration, CoreCivic has maintained high revenues through its contracts with ICE. Just like his Democratic predecessor, President Biden has shown his true colors; he is not on the side of immigrant communities or of New Jersey residents who want to see this detention center closed. Instead, he has chosen to side with the private-prison sector.

Today, in this courthouse, the opposing sides are clear: The people of New Jersey against CoreCivic, backed by the Biden administration. Can New Jersey legislation withstand this corporate attack? We hope so, though not naively, given the record of the conservative judiciary and Democratic Party.

Still, we ground ourselves in the knowledge that we are with the people of New Jersey, who want to see this immigrant jail gone. Friends, families, community organizations, churches, politicians, and even the governor of New Jersey and the attorney general’s office have come out in support of AB 5207; every single one of them supports closing the very last immigrant detention center in the Garden State. Even the landlord who leases the immigrant jail to CoreCivic has come out and said he does not want the company there, either.

The Garden State is more than its beautiful beaches and rivers. It’s home to the underdogs, to those for whom giving up is not an option and those who build what others don’t even dare to imagine. It’s our values of family, dignity and respect toward each other that make us strong. In New Jersey, we protect our own. We need to end this inhumane and cruel system of incarceration. No person, no immigrant, undocumented or not, should be imprisoned.

Whatever the judge decides, two things are certain: New Jersey will remember that President Biden stood in favor of detention centers and against immigrants (and we will make sure to remind people of this once the next election comes); and New Jersey will continue to fight for the immigrant community. We will continue to show up at city hall, at Elizabeth Detention Center, and in front of anyone who has the power to close down this facility. We will not stop until this immigrant jail ceases to exist. That is a promise.

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