The Department of Homeland Security said Monday that, taking a cue from the Department of Justice, it will review its widespread practice of incarcerating immigrants and refugees in for-profit detention centers.
The announcement was hailed by human rights campaigners as a positive development, put on the map by immigrants forced to resort to hunger strike to protest their cruel conditions of confinement. Yet, the DHS statement also left some wondering whether the federal agency will take meaningful action to curb the Obama administration’srecord levels of deportations and mass incarceration targeting people fleeing war, violence and poverty, given that the announcement includes no indication of future plans to reduce detentions.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, who has overseen an escalation in raids and deportations this summer targeting refugees fleeing Central America, released astatement Monday which said, “On August 18, the Department of Justice announced that the Bureau of Prisons will reduce and ultimately end its use of private prisons.” Johnson was referencing the DOJ’s recent claim that it will phase out or reduce for-profit prison contracts in the future. The move affects only 13 facilities, most of them Criminal Alien Requirement prisons that lock up non-U.S. citizens, and will not reduce the overall prison population. That DOJ decision followed a searing report from the Office of Inspector General that exposed widespread human rights abuses in privately run BOP prisons.
“On Friday, I directed our Homeland Security Advisory Council, chaired by Judge William Webster, to evaluate whether the immigration detention operations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement should move in the same direction,” Johnson said. However, Johnson made no explicit commitment to change DHS policies, instead stating that he will set establish “a Subcommittee of the Council to review our current policy and practices concerning the use of private immigration detention and evaluate whether this practice should be eliminated.”
It is not clear, at this point, what impact Johnson’s announcement will have on the people incarcerated in immigrant detention centers, which rights campaigners say are more like prisons or even internment camps.
The incarceration of immigrants, migrants and refugees is the area of greatest growth for the private prison industry in the United States, with the companies Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group making windfall profits. According to the latest figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 70 percent of all ICE beds are operated by for-profit companies.
In turn, these corporations have been instrumental in pressing the U.S. government to adopt heavy-handed immigration policies. A report released last year by the organization Grassroots Leadership, which opposes prison profiteering, reveals that the for-profit prison industry in 2009 successfully pressured Congress to adopt the congressional immigrant detention quota, which today directs ICE to hold an average 34,000 people in detention on a daily basis.
Amid soaring profits, private immigrant detention centers have been rocked by protests and hunger strikes against inhumane conditions. Mothers held with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas have staged repeated protests against nearly free labor, lack of legal representation and contaminated drinking water. In 2014, numerous women detained at the prisonalleged that guards sexually assaulted them. These protests have been instrumental in raising the public profile of abuses committed in these facilities.
However, Tania Unzueta, organizer with Mijente and #Not1MoreDeportation, told AlterNet that the human rights violations that plague private detention centers also extend to publicly operated ones. “We see the same problems in public prisons to various degrees,” said Unzueta. “For example, there has been a large movement led by transgender women to end the detention of transgender women because of the high rate of sexual assault and rape that they face at all centers. We also see the abuse of women and other so-called vulnerable populations, as well as a lack of accountability at both private and public prisons.”
Because of the role the private prison industry plays in lobbying for harsh immigration policies, any step toward reduce its role in the mass detention system is likely to bring positive human rights results, say campaigners. “Corporations like GEO Groups or CCA are constantly pushing for more incarceration,” Brenda Perez, organizer with Comite Popular-Nashville, told AlterNet. “This [DHS] announcement is, minimally, a step in the right direction. But we need to move away from mass detention overall.”
From immigrant detention to the war on drugs, the U.S. public is growing increasingly weary of mass incarceration. Some groups say they hope DHS will not just shuffle undocumented people from private to public facilities, but take meaningful steps to curb mass detentions.
“There are a lot of things that DHS can do right now to reduce reliance on detention, things like reviewing the high amounts that immigration courts set for bonds for immigrants,” Unzueta told AlterNet. “We’re talking about $50,000 bonds that people can’t afford.”
Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, told AlterNet that DHS should “end private prison contracts while reducing the number of people detained. And we need to end the practice of family detention and deprioritize detentions completely.”
Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has overseen the deportation of more than 2.5 million immigrants, marking a 23 percent increase over the George W. Bush presidency and surpassing any other president. Starting in 2014, the Obama administration made the mass detention of families a cornerstone of its response to large-scale displacement from Central American countries where violence and poverty have been worsened by U.S. policies.
“It’s past time that DHS end the practice of detaining immigrants and this review should move it in that direction,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, Mijente field director on behalf of the Not1More Deportation Campaign. “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.”
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.
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