One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for the Feds on Private Prisons

The Department of Homeland Security looks to reopen facilities the Justice Department will no longer contract with.

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When the Justice Department announced that it would phase out its contracts with private prison companies in August, advocates were hopeful that the move would send a strong signal to the states, where more than 91,000 prisoners are housed in private prisons. That remains to be seen, but another arm of the federal government is doubling down on its ties to the facilities, where years of reporting, research, and advocacy work have uncovered rampant abuse, insufficient health care, and unsafe conditions.

Just two months after the decision to end the Bureau of Prisons’ relationship with corrections giants the GEO Group and Correction Corporation of America, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is quietly negotiating to reopen two of the very facilities the Justice Department severed ties with. Following the Justice Department’s announcement, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered an internal subcommittee to review the department’s use of private immigration facilities. That review won’t be complete until Nov. 30. Meanwhile, ICE is renewing its contract with a privately run prison in Texas.

Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told TakePart he believes “ICE is going to continue its relationship with private prisons, and even sign new contracts, regardless of what the review finds. The Department of Justice’s decision is clearly not influencing ICE’s thinking on detention facilities.”

The move to contract with CCA to detain immigrants at its prisons in Youngstown, Ohio, and Cibola County, New Mexico, comes as the Department of Homeland Security encounters a $136 million budget deficit and the number of immigrants crossing into the U.S. at the southern border climbs, The Wall Street Journal reported. The increasing number of Haitian migrants in particular has contributed to the agency’s rising detention rate, which Takei said is “the highest the U.S. has ever seen.” ICE projects that by the end of October, 42,000 immigrants will be in its custody, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In a statement to TakePart, ICE press secretary Jennifer Elzea said the agency “can neither confirm nor discuss ongoing contract negotiations until a contract is signed.” Jonathan Burns, Corrections Corporation of America’s public affairs director, also declined to comment on or confirm the contracts.

But Cibola County Manager Tony Boyd confirmed Thursday to The Nation that the contract with ICE is “in the works, and I think it will happen any day now. The company has talked to us about it to get our support—we would support that because it’ll keep the jobs here.”

CCA has posted openings for corrections jobs in Milan, New Mexico, where Cibola County Correctional Facility is, along with numerous openings in Youngstown. Youngstown is home to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, which lost its contract with the Bureau of Prisons last December, before the Department of Justice issued its directive.

In October, ICE renewed a contract with CCA to continue use of its South Texas Family Residential Center, a detention center that since 2014 has primarily been used to detain a growing population of Central American mothers and children. As the number of migrants entering the U.S. continues to rise, a senior ICE official indicated to The Wall Street Journal, established quality standards for detention facilities may be temporarily disregarded, and scrambling for new spaces to house immigrants could result in a disregard of Prison Rape Elimination Act standards.

“ICE has manufactured this need for additional private prisons,” Christina Fialho, executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, told TakePart. “ICE is creating an illusion that private facilities are necessary so that the subcommittee has an excuse not to follow in the footsteps” of the Justice Department.

Fialho told TakePart that instead of privatized detention centers, ICE should use community-based alternatives to detention programs that are “cheaper and more humane.” The ACLU has recommended that the agency significantly reduce the number of people it houses by ceasing to detain asylum seekers and families, instead focusing detention resources on immigrants recently convicted of serious crimes.

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