In August, a Justice Department memo provided instructions for officials to begin ending contracts with private prisons, with an explicit goal of “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” The memo reflected the department’s findings that private prisons are both less safe and less effective than prisons run by the government. While activists and experts acknowledged the importance of such a statement, they also noted that “the vast majority of the incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons” which means a majority of prisoners are not affected by the change in policy. In truth, there are actually only 22,000 prisoners in facilities that will be impacted by this directive, but activists have celebrated this announcement as an encouraging step towards reform.
For those in the immigration detention system, the memo had no direct impact – the facilities detaining individuals under Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service do not fall under the purview of the Bureau of Prisons. Experts and activists spoke out to remind the public that private companies would still be profiting greatly from their contracts with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the DOJ memo did appear to spur some movement. Shortly after the Justice Department’s announcement, Jeh Johnson announced that DHS would be reviewing its use of privately run immigration detention centers. The Homeland Security Advisory Council will prepare recommendations and present them to Johnson on Nov. 30th.
A decision to stop contracting private companies for immigration detention would arguably have a much greater impact than the Department of Justice memo; as the LA Times reports, “immigration detention facilities house far more detainees than the private facilities the federal prison system has used.” Nine of the ten largest federal immigration detention centers are run by private companies like Geo Group and Corrections Corp.
Activists have been pushing for such a move for years. They argue that because companies seek to maximize profit, they are willing to cut corners, leading to many of the safety and abuse concerns that have arisen over the last several years. These concerns include complaints regarding lack of access to healthcare, unsafe living conditions and sexual abuse. While these problems exist in federal facilities, these activists see them “magnified” in private centers.
Opponents to ending DHS contracts with private companies argue that a move to cut ties with private prison companies would end up being costly to taxpayers, and take a long time to implement. There is potential for such a change to have negative consequences for detainees, at least in the short-term – as they may end up being held in local and state jails due to the lack of federal facilities. They could be held in the same place as those accused of crimes, both violent and otherwise, and situations could be even harsher than those in private detention facilities. The Department of Homeland Security lacks the capacity and trained officials at the moment to directly shift the management of detention facilities into government hands, so they would either need to replace the facilities or somehow eliminate the number of people in detention.
Activists suggest that a move away from privately run facilities could lead to more substantive changes in the structure of the immigration detention system. They point to alternatives to detention, such as community-based strategies that involve support from local organizations to ensure that individuals attend court hearings and remain legally monitored, and suggest that instead of the federal government running the same type of detention centers as they do now, the shift could allow a move toward more humane programs.
Regardless of the DHS decision, the stocks of companies like Geo Group have already fallen in the wake of both these announcements. But an end to privately run detention centers does not necessarily mean that private companies would be uninvolved. Recently, some companies have been attempting to diversify services, perhaps foreseeing such a move by the federal government, and could try to be involved with alternatives to detention instead. They’ve already been doing so with alternatives to criminal incarceration such as rehabilitation services, mental health treatment centers, monitoring technologies for supervised release and other residential reentry programs. While these strategies have largely been developed by activist and immigrant rights groups in attempts to create a more humane criminal justice system, these companies’ move towards “embracing the language of criminal-justice reform” is driven by a concern for profit, not the welfare of those detained.
In addition to the federal review, states are also taking action on the issue. In California, a bill known as the Dignity Not Detention Act has made it to the governor’s desk. The bill would stop local governments from contracting with private companies to run immigration detention centers. The end goal would be to shut down private detention centers in the state. Such legislation can drive change at the local level, but a DHS decision to stop contracting with private companies would have much wider-reaching consequences for immigrants in detention.