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DHS To Revisit For-Profit Immigrant Prisons: Will It Also Revisit Mass Detentions?

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DHS To Revisit For-Profit Immigrant Prisons: Will It Also Revisit Mass Detentions?


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.

Photo: Photo Credit: sakhorn / Shutterstock.com



  1. Dominick Vila August 31, 2016

    Regardless of whether the reason for the incarceration and mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and refugees trying to escape violence, is motivated by pressure from for-profit prison owners, by ideology, or by political imperatives, the truth is that we are making a mockery of our purported values, traditions, and allegations of being a bastion of freedom and democracy.
    We stand alone among Western nations in the way we handle undocumented migrations, and the way we treat refugees. In fact, there are some among us who are not satisfied with the status quo, and are calling for “extreeeme” vetting, in part because we have accepted 10,000 refugees, at a time when countries like Germany received one million refugees.
    We either abandon all pretenses, and admit that we are no better than South Africa in the apartheid era, or abandon that policies we are currently adopting in an effort to satisfy the wishes of the most radical elements, and institutions, in our society.

  2. Eleanore Whitaker August 31, 2016

    Once you take a good long look at the Republican states, you see why they are the template for The GRAND OPPRESSIVE PARTY’s ideals of mass privatization of government down to the very last employee.

    We already know the Republicans flush more than 65% of every tax dollar to their states. Then, you factor in their annual beggar’s banquet of FEMA, BIG OIL and the privatizing of prisons and other services that never were intended to be part of the GRAND OLE PICNIC of privatization. What’s left are the states doing ALL of the financial supporting all while their Republican campaign coffers burst at the seams and keep the worst nutbags in government. But then, you do need lots and lots and lots of Republicans to privatize democracy don’t you?

  3. FireBaron August 31, 2016

    I wonder how many of these for-profit prison corporations were set up by friends of the former VP of the us, and received no-bid contracts, just like his old employer, Haliburton?

  4. Jon August 31, 2016

    Who, other than those who would profit either directly or indirectly, ever could have thought for even a minute that privatization of prisons or detention centers was a good thing? They had to know that they were sanctioning the abuse of people housed in them. Running a prison for profit means cutting expenses wherever possible including hiring, screening, and training of personnel, food, utilities, technology and every possible facet. The cutting of expenses was not done to save taxpayer money but to increase profits. Honestly, could no one have foreseen this?


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