ICE Reopening Shuttered Private Prisons and Adding Beds at County Jails to Expand Deportation Machinery

ICE reopens the private prisons that Obama’s Justice Department ordered closed.

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In the netherworld that is the nation’s prison system, news this week that inmate populations have decreased across America is hiding a grim and opposing reality: that federal immigration authorities not only are holding record numbers of detainees but are grabbing recently shuttered privatized prisons for deportation pens. This is happening as county jails are adding hundreds of beds for detaining those arrested on immigration charges.

This bifurcated picture of America’s prison system takes on an ominous relevance under the Trump administration’s push to deport visa-less immigrants. On one hand, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics is reporting a drop in adult citizen inmates, which analysts at the Pew Charitable Trusts tout as a 13 percent decline from 2007 to 2015. But these analyses are not counting immigration arrests, according to civil rights attorneys who note that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been reopening just-closed private prisons in New Mexico, Ohio and Georgia for its use. These are the same facilities the Justice Department closed last August because of an array of problems, including alleged medical negligence leading to inmate deaths. (On Thursday, the DOJ announced it was reversing the Obama administration's ban on using private prisons.)

“This has already happened in three facilities,” said Heidi Altman, National Immigrant Justice Center policy director, referring to ICE reopening shuttered privately run prisons. “This is something ICE knows how to do. They know how to go into empty jails and turn them into immigration detention centers. I also think that they will expand their IGSAs (inter-governmental service agreements) with county jails."

“They do look to open these new big facilities like Cibola [New Mexico], Folkston [Georgia] and Youngstown [Ohio],” she said, which can house about 3,000 prisoners. “But we also started seeing—and this started popping up in local news alerts—adding 100 extra beds in Kankakee [Illinois], a local jail in the midwest, and 100 extra beds in the Charleston [South Carolina] jail. If you have existing IGSAs and you can just add on 100 beds, that gets you to several thousand extra beds pretty quickly.”  

“My guess is that since it might be cheaper to contract than to build new facilities they will now pursue such agreements more aggressively if given the funding to do so, “ said Nora Preciado, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles.
This expanded detention capacity comes against a backdrop where there are roughly 40,000 immigrants being held in federal facilities or private jails under contract with ICE, Altman said, according to the most recent statistics, a mid-November announcement by then Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. That number of immigrant detainees is a record and double the number held in 2002, one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Altman said there was little stopping ICE from expanding this part of the deportation machinery. While lawyers defending immigrants will file lawsuits to try to slow ICE’s system of roundups, arrests, detention centers, judicial review and deportation, she said there was little to stop ICE from expanding its private prison capacity apart from Congress not funding these activities. In the meantime, ICE doesn’t need to construct new facilities to hold thousands of undocumented immigrants it may soon round up under Trump’s orders, because it can rely on privatized prisons and expand its contracts with county jails, including those in sanctuary cities.

“The sanctuary city debate is actually pretty separate,” she said. “You can have a sanctuary city that has an IGSA to hold people—I know that sound weird. But most existing sanctuary policies don’t preclude the city from entering into an IGSA for a local jail.”

In other words, there’s very little stopping ICE from rounding up thousands of immigrants, even if the current system is plagued by legal problems like warrantless arrests, due process violations (such as holding detainees for longer than the proscribed legal maximum) and well-documented problems with prison conditions. These problems are especially acute in rural counties that lack a range of social services and health care options in the region apart from their jails.

“There’s one other way: they could put up tent cities,” Altman said, citing a report in the Brownsville (Texas) Herald newspaper, which said ICE was seeking to reopen a privately run prison that had been closed two years ago after prisoner riots.

“Nearly two years ago, on Feb. 20, 2015, rioting inmates destroyed much the Willacy County Correction Center, a 3,000-bed minimum-security prison made up of 10 tent-like domes holding undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes,” the Herald reported on February 17. “Weeks after the uprising, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which housed nearly 3,000 prisoners in the facility, terminated its contract with MTC [Management and Training Corp].”

That report quoted an MTC corporate spokesman as saying they were working with the county to reopen the facility, with county officials adding the region was suffering economically after 400 prison-related jobs were lost. In other words, the same private operator whose management led to riots is now being called upon by ICE and local government to return to the prison business.

“There is nothing stopping ICE from engaging in massive roundups and jailing people,” Altman said, adding a sobering thought: that ICE’s jail were already hellholes before Trump issued his anti-immigrant decrees and top Homeland Security this week said 15,000 additional federal police were needed to enforce the president’s decrees.

“What we need to understand, though, is no way they can accomplish that and protect the basic health and safety and due process rights of the people they are jailing. This system is already so overloaded,” she explained. “The prisoner numbers released prior to the inauguration showed a system that was so overwhelmed that basic rights violations were already rampant. It’s not infrequent to see deaths attributable to medical negligence in ICE custody. Reports of abuse are not infrequent… We are already looking at a system that is so broken.”

“This expansion of detention raises concerns for several reasons, and one of them is the continued inability by Border Patrol to address the deplorable conditions that people in these so-called short-term detention facilities are facing now,” said the National Immigration Law Center’s Preciado. “Border Patrol cannot monitor itself and they have failed to adhere to even their meager standards. These problems with the detention conditions are going to be exacerbated when you increase the number of people detained and when you involve additional actors without adequate standards, monitoring and oversight.”

These advocates know the brutality of ICE’s system all too well. When you consider what Trump’s call to rapidly expand that deportation machine suggests, anyone caught in its dragnet will almost certainly face demeaning, dire and dangerous conditions. And ICE’s use of privately run prisons means that those caught in its snares will be even further removed from any public accountability or means to counter its abuses or violence.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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