Lawmakers got a rare chance on Thursday to publicly question the embattled CEO of the Nakamoto Group, which has faced a torrent of criticism from government officials and human rights groups for providing substandard inspections of immigrant detention centers.
Members of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Management, & Accountability seemed shocked when Jennifer Nakamoto testified that she sees no need to change her business practices. In one exchange, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nevada) asked about long-term detention in the Henderson Detention Center, a small facility near Las Vegas that holds 245 immigrants, was among the top 15 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities to place people convicted of civil offenses in solitary confinement, and passed its annual pre-announced inspection by the Nakamoto Group in July.
“Don’t you find those numbers kind of high – 121 placements and 16 of them lasted more than 75 days over just a year and a half?” asked Titus.
“Well, segregation and solitary confinement are not the same,” responded Jennifer Nakamoto, who then struggled to explain the difference.
“Doesn’t seem to me like you know very much about this business,” sighed Titus, as she shrugged and exchanged raised eyebrows with other members of the subcommittee.
Since 2015, ICE has paid Nakamoto Group $22,538,084 to conduct pre-announced annual inspections that even ICE staff called “useless” and “very, very, very difficult to fail,” according to a 2018 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. But instead of cancelling Nakamoto’s contract, ICE’s Office of Acquisition Management recently approved a $3,738,177 extension to the company’s work order on September 20, just days before the September 26 hearing.
Committee members repeatedly asked Nakamoto to respond to the OIG report, which found that Nakamoto’s inspections failed to lead to sustained compliance or improvements — “with some deficiencies remaining unaddressed for years” — and often overlooked problems related to health and safety, even downplaying the discovery of “nooses” or knotted up sheets that some detainees use for privacy, but others, such as Jean Carlos Alfonso Jimenez-Joseph, have used for suicide.
Even Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) acknowledged that there “does seem to be quite a few requirements that perhaps there is not enough time to look into,” and indicated support for giving inspectors more time to thoroughly review 42 standards that include about 600 elements to check. “Four days instead of three days is not exactly a huge stretch of the imagination,” he added. “It is something we could easily do.”
But Nakamoto also refused this suggestion.
“My team works very closely with ICE,” she said. “If there is any issues that come up then we have a good relationship with letting ICE know what the issues are.”
Nakamoto said her company employs 45 part-time and 12-full time inspectors to visit about 120 facilities a year.
“She appeared to be very sensitive to the priorities of the people at ICE who oversee her inspection contract,” said Carl Takei, a Senior ACLU Staff Attorney who spoke to Truthout in his capacity as a member of the Steering Committee for Tsuru for Solidarity, a group of Japanese-Americans that fights the incarceration and separation of migrant families. The group has called on Nakamoto to apologize and end its work for ICE.
In her opening statement, Nakamoto emphasized her family’s history during World War II of being rounded-up by the U.S. government and held in Japanese-American internment camps. Takai said he found her remarks “profoundly offensive.”
“I and many others in the Japanese-American community have gone into civil rights work because of the experiences that members of our families suffered,” Takai added. “These spur us to create a society that is more fair that will not inflict the same kinds of harm our families suffered. Jennifer Nakamoto has done the opposite.”
Nakamoto also has a contract to inspect U.S. Marshals Service facilities, and to conduct Prison Rape Elimination Act audits of ICE detention centers for DHS. Despite reports of dozens of allegations of sexual assault, the DHS facilities passed Nakamato’s audits “with no red flags,” according to a Rewire.News investigation.
The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) has published damning reports of how ICE’s ineffective inspections process is plagued by a “checklist culture” of “pre-planned, perfunctory reviews” that make it complicit in abuse. In 2017, the Center reviewed five years of reports and found every detention center and jail had passed inspection, including those where multiple people had died from alleged medical neglect.
With Democrats in control of the House and Nakamoto’s contract up for renewal this year, the damning OIG and advocacy reports have spurred some changes to ICE’s much-maligned inspection process.
During Thursday’s hearing, Tae Johnson, Assistant Director for ICE’s Custody Management, Enforcement and Removal Operations, defended what he called ICE’s “multi-layered inspections program” but told lawmakers that the agency is now monitoring Nakamoto’s performance more closely with “seasoned employees that accompany … the inspectors to ensure they’re providing the services we’re paying for.”
Nakamoto has maintained a contract to conduct inspections for ICE since 2007, but the agency could finally cut ties. On Thursday, Johnson confirmed ICE is “in the middle of a recompete,” and that “new requirements will be included in the new contract.”
The work order for the company’s contract extension also confirms that the agency has begun to transfer its annual inspections program from its Custody Management Division to the Office of Professional Responsibility. These changes, which could allow ICE to simply hire a different company or continue to monitor itself, have failed to satisfy civil rights advocates.
“Inspections should be taken out of ICE entirely,” insisted Heidi Altman, NIJC Director of Policy. “You can’t have the jailer inspecting the jails.”
One option would be for Congress to fund additional inspections by the DHS OIG, which “has demonstrated itself to be fairly independent of ICE,” suggested Madhuri Grewal, Federal Immigration Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Trump’s Justice Department sued California in March after the state passed a law requiring the state attorney general to inspect any facility in California that holds immigrants. In April, a Republican-appointed judge backed California, ruling that the inspections do not “discriminate” against the federal government because they are similar to its requirements for other prisons in the state.
At the federal level, ACLU, NIJC and other advocates such as Detention Watch Network and Freedom for Immigrants want members of Congress to address ICE’s inspection process by cutting appropriations for expanding detention and have launched a new “Eyes on ICE Detention Oversight Initiative that calls on lawmakers to make unannounced visits to detention centers in their districts.
“It’s a checks and balances issue for us,” Altman noted. “Members of Congress need to take responsibility for facilities in their own state by conducting private interviews with people in detention outside the ear shot of guards, and bear witness.”
Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado was denied entrance to the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver when he attempted to visit without advance notice after the OIG conducted an unannounced inspection and released a report condemning conditions there. He and his staff now make weekly visits every Monday at noon with their own checklists.
“We hope to improve conditions at these facilities and draw attention to the impact of the administration’s policies on our community,” Crow said in a statement. “All people deserve to be treated with dignity and decency.”
ICE hit a record daily average of 55,000 people in detention earlier this year, and estimates it now holds about 52,000 people in custody. The record numbers of people in ICE custody stems from the agency’s elimination of bond hearings for asylum seekers, as well as its denial of humanitarian parole for asylum seekers and setting of high bond amounts for immigrants seeking release.
“The big concern isn’t just the conditions,” Grewal said. “It is the use of mass detention.”
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