Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would begin phasing out its contracts with private prisons, eventually ending the use of these facilities all together.
The DOJ announcement comes on the heels of a recent report by the Inspector General’s office, which found inadequate monitoring of the private prisons and a lower-level of safety and security than federally operated facilities. It questioned the use of solitary confinement as a solution to overcrowding, and the inability to track and verify if inmates receive adequate health care.
In a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates directed the BOP not to renew contracts with private prisons, eventually ending their use altogether. She reasoned that while the private facilities where necessary when incarceration rates were growing, they have steadily been declining since 2013. In addition, inmates are better and more consistently served in BOP facilities, and private prisons do not “save substantially on costs,” as previously argued.
The day of the announcement, stocks for the two largest U.S. private prison operators, Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) and GEO Group, Inc., plummeted between 30 and 40 percent. And experts have praised the DOJ announcement as a significant step toward criminal justice reform in a country that incarcerates 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, while only representing 4.4 percent of world’s population.
However, the DOJ directive does not apply to state prisons, public or private, nor to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention facilities, the majority of which are privately run. Advocates argue the private companies still stand to profit from imprisoning people, and call for states and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, to follow the DOJ’s lead.
“The private prison industry creates a problematic and damaging incentive to incarcerate and detain more people whether that’s for immigration or criminal violations,” says Kathryn Johnson, policy impact coordinator for American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Washington D.C. AFSC is a century-old Quaker nonprofit organization working with immigrants and refugees.
In the case of ICE, Johnson argues, this incentive has resulted in Congressional immigration detention minimums, most commonly referred to as the “bed quota.”
The bed quota was first introduced in 2009 as part of DHS’ appropriations act of 2010. At the time, it called for daily funding of no less than 34,000 detention beds. The 2013 appropriations bill upped the quota to 34,000. No other law enforcement agency has such a directive from Congress.
According to AFSC, approximately 500,000 people sleep in the 34,000 beds in immigration detention facilities each year, costing taxpayers nearly $2 billion. Nine of the 10 largest ICE immigration detention facilities are privately owned and operated, eight of which are run by either CCA or GEO Group, Inc. Since the introduction of the bed quota, there’s been a 13 percent increase in the number of immigrants housed in these private facilities, which provide 62 percent of detention beds.
Another advocacy group, Grassroots Leadership, reports that for-profit facilities have increased their share of detention beds by 13 percent since the quota was instituted. It also reports that contrary to the private prison industries denial of such claims, CCA and GEO Group, Inc. have also spent significant resources lobbying on issues of immigration reform and detention, with CCA specifically lobbying the DHS appropriations subcommittee according to the group.
Johnson believes the DOJ’s findings and recent announcement should cause DHS and Congress to reevaluate the bed quota and use of private companies for immigration detention.
“It would be inexcusable for DHS not to carefully examine facilities and their use of private prisons in light of this announcement,” Johnson says. “It’s the same companies that are running many of the facilities and there is no reason to believe that they don’t face the same problems.”
“It seems that if a government agency has investigated and seen these problems that it should apply across the board even if it is across different agencies,” says Gabriela Flora, AFSC’s Denver program director. “But that’s not how our system always runs.”
She says AFSC has heard reports from people previously held in the Denver Contract Detention Facility operated by the GEO Group, Inc. in Aurora, that solitary confinement is used as punishment, under-cooked food is causing stomach issues, frigid temperatures cause respiratory problems and requests for extra blankets and clothes are denied. Like all other privately run prisons, the Aurora facility is not subjected to open-records request laws and AFSC has been unable to confirm these reports.
Flora says the difficulty in accessing information and the lack of transparency is another reason ICE should not contract private companies to run immigration detention. She would like DHS to use the DOJ investigation’s findings, follow suit and also terminate its contracts with private prisons.
“It is particularly important to put pressure on DHS, and say, ‘Phasing out of private prisons is the right thing to do in the Department of Justice and it’s also the right thing to do in the Department of Homeland Security.’”
Officials from ICE and DHS did not respond to an interview request on the matter but did provide the following statement via email:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody. For individuals in its custody, ICE seeks to reduce transfers, maximize access to counsel and visitation, promote recreation, improve conditions of confinement and ensure quality medical, mental health and dental care. …
“ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
Furthermore, ICE officials maintain the detention system has a thorough chain of oversight and the Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) publishes annual compliance reports on each detention facility. “ODO’s findings, coupled with regular onsite inspections, enable ICE to isolate and quickly address any operating deficiencies identified at its detention facilities,” an ICE official speaking on background wrote in an email.
The DOJ announcement will, however, affect a large population of non-U.S. citizens who are currently in Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons that fall under BOP and not ICE. These facilities house immigrants, approximately 23,000 non-citizens at the end of 2015, who are mainly serving criminal sentences for “improper” entry or reentry after a deportation, as well as nonviolent drug offenses. Immigration advocates have long argued that immigrants are subjected to squalid conditions, overuse of solitary confinement and lack of medical care at the private CAR facilities, although the prisons have continuously refuted such accusations. There are 13 such privately run facilities under the BOP.
Regardless of its limited scope, Johnson from AFSC praises the DOJ directive as a step in the right direction, although the complete phasing out of private prisons depends entirely upon whether or not the incoming administration decides to implement it. However, she points out, it should urge Congress to reconsider and amend the detention bed quota.
“Whereas with the DOJ there is not an immediate step that Congress can take to have an impact, there certainly is in the case of the ICE facilities and an easy fix within the appropriations bill,” she says.
AFSC is hosting a Week of Action August 22-26, urging citizens to call congressional representatives and ask them to end the detention bed quota as a step toward abolishing immigration detention altogether.