For-profit prisons do not maintain the same levels of security and safety as federal facilities, cost more to monitor, and are plagued with civil rights violations. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates therefore instructed the Bureau of Prisons on Aug. 18 to either decline contract renewals for privatized prisons, or renew with “substantially” reduced scope.
This is a major step forward. Now the DOJ's sister agency, the Department of Homeland Security, should follow suit, as recently suggested by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Abortion access for 65M women at stake Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan Sanders urges Biden to delay Medicare premium hike linked to Alzheimer's drug MORE and Rep. Raul Grijalva.
There is a refugee crisis on our southern border: a vast surge of Central American refugees – many of them young children – running for their lives. In 2014, Secretary Johnson decided that 'aggressive deterrence' was the only way to deal with the crisis: incarcerating asylum seekers to prevent the perception that America might serve as a refuge for those being persecuted.
No one got the memo. People still came. But DHS didn't have a facility that was ready to detain these refugees. Enter the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offering the construction and operation of a new detention center, for a low, low price of one billion of your tax dollars.
In order to get the detention center up and running as soon and as opaquely as possible, CCA asked the town of Eloy, Arizona (home of an existing CCA facility) to modify its contract and authorize an expansion of the Eloy CCA facility in order to circumvent bidding regulations. The fact that this “expansion” was being made a thousand miles away in another state, in a location Eloy had no control over, was irrelevant.
When a refugee comes to the United States, the government may detain them until a process called a “credible fear interview” takes place, to determine whether or not they have a potentially viable asylum claim. However, DHS has taken this as an excuse to hold refugees and asylum seekers in conditions that mimic jail, treating those awaiting a hearing as though they were convicted criminals. What's more, aliens who have passed their credible fear interview and demonstrated that they have a potential asylum claim are often still held in detention, costing the government money but serving no useful purpose. Despite Jeh Johnson's claim that the “average length of stay at [a detention center] is 20 days or less,” families are often held for much longer. In fact, twenty-two women being held with their families in the Berks Detention Center launched a hunger strike on Aug. 8 to protest their detentions, which have all run “for 270 to 365 days.”
Mother Jones recently examined the pervasive failures of CCA and its personnel in its Winnfield, Louisiana prison complex. The investigation documented CCA's failure to provide adequate medical care to seriously ill or pregnant inmates, rampant corruption amongst corrections officers (including sexual abuse of inmates), and unreported assaults amongst the prison population. These abuses are horrendous enough when applied to convicted criminals who have had due process of law; they are completely unacceptable when applied to asylum seekers who have committed no crime, and utterly unthinkable when applied to young children. Indeed, one of the most recent cases of asylum seekers suing ICE and CCA, in part for CCA's mistreatment during their detention, was filed on Aug. 17, alleging that CCA personnel engaged in sleep deprivation, denied asylum seekers access to their attorneys, and attempted to coerce them into signing voluntary deportation forms.
What's more, private prison companies lobby for policies that encourage detention. It's good for their bottom line by ensuring their centers remain at maximum capacity. CCA and their ilk continue to place their taxpayer-funded profits ahead of human dignity and human lives.
The aggressive detention of refugees both injures them and wastes the government's money for no gain whatsoever. The ostensible reason for detaining families is so that they will not attempt to evade their court hearing. But for the families being detained, their asylum hearing is their best chance to avoid the persecution they're suffering in their homeland – and they know it. A 2015 report from the American Immigration Council indicates that not only are asylum seekers “especially predisposed” to attend their immigration hearings, but that use of alternative to detention results in a 95% hearing attendance rate.
There is no legitimate reason for these families to be detained. But now, as a result of perverse incentives created for the benefit of a profit-focused prison industry, America's response to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is to lock them up. It's time to end family detention.
Humza Kazmi is immigration attorney at the HMA Law Firm. @HMALawFirm
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.