The financial costs of detaining migrants can sometimes be overlooked when we're talking about immigration policy. That said, you might be wondering if taxpayer money is going to the private prisons that reportedly house some migrants awaiting their dates in immigration court. The answer is yes — and it's a lot of money.
A report from the Daily Beast released Thursday claims that in the 2018 fiscal year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spent over $800 million of taxpayer money on privately owned or operated detention facilities. Through an analysis of the ICE budget and other public records, Daily Beast reporters found that about 18,000 migrants — about 41 percent of the total number of detained individuals — are housed in private facilities.
"Ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for detention space is crucial to the success of ICE’s overall mission," ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett told the Daily Beast. "Accordingly, the agency is continually reviewing its detention requirements and exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency’s custody." Bustle has reached out to ICE for comment.
ICE didn't give the Daily Beast a full breakdown of private contractors they are working with. But a lack of transparency around their government contracts to detain migrants has civil rights watchdogs worried.
"Even though billions of taxpayer dollars are being obligated to private prison companies, the contracts between them and the federal government aren't publicly available, so we don't know how much these companies are being paid, how many people they're holding or how long their contracts last," Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network told the Daily Beast. "This culture of secrecy — bolstered by revolving door politics and political contributions — have paved the way for a rapid and reckless expansion of the detention system."
For-profit private prisons in the United States are not uncommon — according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 128,300 inmates, or 9 percent of the nation's prison population (state and federal combined), were held in privately owned or operated facilities in 2016. The American Bar Association attributes the rise of private prisons to "tough on crime" policies in recent decades that subsequently ballooned the number of incarcerated Americans.
At the end of the day, taxpayers are footing the bill for private prison costs, just like they are for state or federally operated prisons. According to the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU), proponents of private prisons see them as a cost-saving measure, cheaper to operate than government facilities.
However, research into private prisons has shown that might not actually be the case, and in some cases they actually cost more and have worse conditions and more violence. As a result, Sally Yates, attorney general under President Obama, ordered the Justice Department to begin phasing out private prisons in 2016, calling them sub-par and not substantially cost-saving.
In 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Yates' directive, arguing that private prisons are increasingly necessary. Given that 2018 ended up seeing the highest number of immigration detainees since 2001, according to CNN, Sessions statement at the time foreshadowed what was to come.
"The memorandum [to discontinue private prison use] changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system," Sessions wrote. "Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach."