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How for-profit detention persists in the West

Federal policy changes only go part of the way in dismantling private immigrant detention.

 

Last month, criminal justice and immigrant rights activists had two occasions to celebrate. The first came on Aug. 18 when the Justice Department announced it would phase out its contracts with private prisons, a decision affecting the roughly 22,000 federal inmates held in for-profit facilities.  Then, less than two weeks later, the Department of Homeland Security decided to reexamine its use of private prisons to hold immigrant detainees. In many ways, the back-to-back decisions represent a turning point in the government’s relationship with private detention, which has come under increasing scrutiny for poor conditions and opaque operations.

While the recent decisions may signal a desire to dismantle that system, they leave intact much of the private immigration detention apparatus, which has woven its way into local economies. 

Their shared history goes back to the early 2000s, when the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems began merging, breaking a longstanding tradition of treating immigration violations as civil offenses and creating hundreds of thousands of new criminal cases — and a need for new detention space. Private prison companies have played an increasing role in that trend, spending millions on lobbying efforts for more punitive immigration laws that would increase the need for their services.

The result is a system in which undocumented immigrants — and even legal U.S. residents convicted of minor crimes — can be detained and deported over minor offenses. Many others, including women and children, are detained at the border as they attempt to cross north from Mexico. It’s an expensive practice: immigrant detention costs U.S. taxpayers $2 billion per year.

The Otay Mesa detention facility in San Diego is privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America to house immigrant detainees on behalf of the U.S. government.
BBC/Flickr

On average, more than 33,000 immigrants are held every day in a convoluted web of federal detention facilities and local jails throughout the country where they are often subject to violence, abuse, solitary confinement, and poor medical care. In addition, many facilities are in remote areas where access to legal advice is even more difficult (unlike regular criminal inmates, people charged for immigration violations are not guaranteed a lawyer, so they have to find their own attorney or represent themselves).

Although much of the scrutiny is centered on the private companies that operate detention facilities, local governments often profit from detaining immigrants too, by agreeing to house detainees on behalf of the federal government. For cash-strapped rural towns and counties, these deals, known as Intergovernmental Service Agreements, are especially appealing.

In southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, for instance, 270 of the 846 beds in the local jail are designated for immigrant detainees. In exchange, the county receives $62 per day from the U.S. Marshals Service, or a little over $6 million per year if all the beds are used.

Over the last several years, private prison companies have cashed in on these arrangements by contracting with local governments to run their detention facilities for them, promising that doing so will provide jobs and more revenue for the county. That’s what happened in the border town of San Luis, Arizona. In 2009, Emerald Correctional Management, a Louisiana-based private prison outfit, contracted with the city of San Luis to operate the local jail, the San Luis Regional Detention and Support Center, which primarily houses immigrant detainees and provides 100 local jobs.

The company pursued numerous contracts with federal agencies, including ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service, and Border Patrol, to house short-term immigrant detainees on their way to deportation or to other detention facilities to serve their sentences. But in the last few years, as the number of people crossing the border illegally dropped, Emerald began losing money on the 960-bed facility. Last year, it was operating at a $2 million loss, and the city received no money from the facility.

The loss of revenue hit San Luis hard, says Kay Macuil, the city attorney, noting that in the last round of budgeting, every department in the local government had to make cuts. But she’s optimistic that Emerald will find a way to make money on the facility in other ways. Recently, the company signed a contract with Bureau of Indian Affairs to house tribal prisoners in its private rehabilitation program, bringing in an additional 70 to 80 inmates per day. 

Even though the Department of Homeland Security has said that it will review its use of private prisons, officials have not yet indicated whether a decision to cancel its private prison contracts would extend to counties and cities like San Luis that contract with ICE and then subcontract with private companies. Nor has the U.S. Marshals Service indicated that it has any plans to stop housing its immigrant detainees in private facilities.

That would be good news for the San Luis and its detention center, says Macuil. She believes there will always be a need for jail-like facilities near the border as a staging ground for deportations. “You can’t just cram 300 people in a bus,” she says. 

For the DHS decision to have a meaningful impact, activists say, it would also have to be coupled with broader policy changes that reduce the size of the country’s immigrant detention system. One important change would be ending the law that requires ICE to fund 34,000 beds for immigrant detainees at any time, which critics say incentivizes keeping them filled.

“The bottom line is that ICE has the opportunity to release a lot of detainees but it’s not doing that,” says Ben Davis, a researcher for In the Public Interest, a nonprofit that studies privatization. Davis argues that less costly and more humane alternatives exist for enforcing the country’s immigration laws, such as community supervision programs or releasing people under an agreement to show up in court. 

Meanwhile, the intricate connection between law enforcement and private industry will likely continue. Even in government-run detention facilities, many of the services are often privatized, including food, healthcare, and phone calls. Though the Doña Ana County Detention Center is not privatized, outside the courthouse in Las Cruces, activist Sara Melton regularly sees three to four buses owned by private prison companies that are waiting to transport detainees to their facilities.

“There are plenty of ways to make money off detention,” she says. Here on the border, it’s a lucrative place to be. 

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN.