Following the Department of Justice's landmark decision to phase out its use of private prisons, immigrant rights activists have argued that the use of private immigrant detention centers is also dangerous. According to a statement released Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took this into consideration, ordering an evaluation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's immigrant detention operations. The eventual goal of this evaluation is to determine whether private immigrant detention centers should be eliminated.
In the statement, Johnson indicated that he asked Judge William Webster, who chairs the Homeland Security Advisory Council, to form a subcommittee that would review current private immigrant detention policies and "consider all factors concerning ICE’s detention policy and practice, including fiscal considerations." He also asked that the subcommittee submit a report to him by Nov. 30.
If the subcommittee concludes that the use of private immigrant detention centers should come to a halt, that would be an important step forward in American immigration policy. According to The Texas Tribune, two companies that have previously been under scrutiny for contracting private prisons — the Corrections Corp of America and the GEO Group — also became notorious for running for-profit immigrant detention facilities, especially after facilities in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas started housing undocumented women and children.
After the DOJ's decision to stop outsourcing federal-level incarceration to private companies, the #Not1More Campaign, Color of Change, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and other activist groups put pressure on the DHS to change its own private detention center policies. For one thing, the majority of federal private prisons are run not by the DOJ, but by the DHS. Furthermore, while DHS' ICE operates 11 percent of all immigrant detention beds, for-profit prison corporations operate 62 percent — many of which are in for-profit facilities contracted with ICE. ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez told ThinkProgress that the agency’s detention operations had not changed, even after the DOJ’s decision.
In a recent press release, Jacinta Gonzalez, the field director of grassroots Latinx group Mijente, responded to Johnson's statement by detailing some of the alleged dangers of private detention facilities:
DHS’ detention system has proven to be cruel and costly. It’s past time that DHS end the practice of detaining immigrants and this review should move it in that direction. Whether it is in the CCA-run Eloy facility where a series of suspicious deaths sparked hunger strikes and four recent sexual assault cases remain uninvestigated or in the Berks family detention center where refugee mothers demand their freedom, or the trans pods in Santa Ana where detainees face abuse, the country’s detention system represents a major crisis made worse by companies profiting from the suffering of the people kept inside.
However, Dani Bennett, another ICE spokeswoman, insisted that anyone in the detention centers' custody is guaranteed safety, and that the reviews process, in her opinion, is already sufficient. In 2015, she released a statement to The Huffington Post in response to a report written by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network criticizing the ICE's oversight of the centers:
ICE remains committed to ensuring that all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that they have access to legal counsel, visitation, recreation, and quality medical, mental, health and dental care.
Several progressive politicians, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have spoken out in favor of the DHS policy review. “The Department of Homeland Security should follow the lead of the Department of Justice and phase out for-profit, privately run immigration detention facilities," Sanders told The Hill. "These private prisons cost more and are less humane.”
This is what many immigrant rights activists have been saying for years. For-profit detention centers can get away with a lot of inhumane treatment, particularly because ICE inspections of these facilities are announced well ahead of time. Claudia Valenzuela, the director of detention services for the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network, told Vice News last year that facilities can therefore put on their "best face" ahead of inspections, and focus more on completing checklists than on improving the treatment of detainees. As a result, everything from sexual assault cases to a lack of mental health services risk being overlooked during inspections.
In a petition launched on Mijente's website, the #Not1More Campaign called on Johnson to "terminate and refuse to renew immigrant detention contracts with private prison companies," claiming that the "profit motive" for detention centers results in abusive conditions. As Grassroots Leadership Director Bob Libal told The Huffington Post, the hunger strikes and protests held by detainees at for-profit facilities should make it clear that these facilities have many of the same problems that the DOJ uncovered in private prisons. Consequently, phasing out private prisons is only the first step in addressing a much bigger picture.