Immigration

There's a Monster Loophole in the Feds' Move to Stop Working With Private Prisons

The thousands locked up in immigration facilities will not be helped.

Photo Credit: Heiko Kueverling / Shutterstock.com

Mothers incarcerated with their children at a for-profit immigrant detention center in Karnes City, Texas have organized repeated hunger strikes in recent years against their inhumane conditions, which they say include sexual abuse and severely underpaid labor. These protests from the inside, in concert with rolling hunger strikes at facilities across the country, have forced a greater public reckoning with the human rights abuses perpetrated by the private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group that have reaped windfall profits—and helped drive—harsh immigration policies.

But now that the Department of Justice claims that it is going to, at some point in the future, phase out or “reduce” its contracts with private prisons, the people locked up in for-profit immigrant detention centers like Karnes are being left completely by the wayside. That is because the DOJ’s announcement does not apply the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the notorious immigrant detention centers that are responsible for the dramatic growth of the private prison industry in the United States.

The DOJ’s decision will impact 13 federal prisons run by private companies, or just over 22,000 incarcerated people. These people will be ostensibly shuffled to publicly-operated prisons, which is still a big problem for those who argue that mass incarceration itself is a profound injustice.

As the anti-prison-profiteering organization Grassroots Leadership explains, “Most privately-operated prisons within the BOP are Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons. CAR prisons hold noncitizens, many of whom have been criminally prosecuted for crossing the border.” Bethany Carson, researcher and organizer for the group, said in a press statement, “We hope that this decision will be a stepping stone for the DOJ to end the use of segregated prisons for non-citizens and de-prioritize improper entry and re-entry prosecutions.”

But human rights groups are disappointed that the new directive will not make a dent in the vast industry reaping profits from the incarceration of immigrants, migrants and refugees. The Latinx power organization Presente.org recently declared, “unless we push President Obama to do more, it won't make a difference for thousands of immigrants locked up in for-profit dungeons.”

This is no small matter. An ICE spokesperson told Intercept reporter Alice Speri that the agency has 46 privately-run immigrant detention centers. According to Speri’s reporting, “While the immigration detention population fluctuates, private contractors oversee a daily average of 24,567 detainees — out of the average 33,676 held in ICE detention each day.” That means that more than 70 percent of all ICE beds are operated by for-profit companies.

Private prison companies are getting a corner on a rapidly expanding market in human beings. As of last year, 62 percent all beds in ICE immigrant detention centers were operated by for-profit companies—a significant jump from 49 percent in 2009.

As documented in a report released last year by the organization Grassroots Leadership, which opposes prison profiteering, immigrant detention is so central to the profits of private prison companies that they have directly lobbied the government to advocate for harsher immigration policies. This includes pressing for the congressional immigrant detention quote, which was introduced in 2009 and today directs ICE to hold an average 34,000 people in detention on a daily basis.

In other words, while private prison stocks have taken a nose dive following the DOJ announcement, the entrenched power and profit-making of these companies should not be under-estimated. In fact, CCA spokesperson Jonathan Burns made this point in a statement released after the DOJ announcement, proclaiming, “it’s important to note that today’s announcement relates only to BOP correctional facilities, which make up 7 percent of our business.”

“The voices of people who have spoken up at great risk to themselves in response to egregious conditions in these facilities has been enormously important in forcing the changes we are seeing,” Bob Libal, executive director for Grassroots Leadership, told AlterNet. “I think it’s absurd that the DOJ has said that private prison corporations are unable to safely operate facilities for adults but that it is appropriate for these same private corporations to operate facilities for little kids and their moms.”

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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