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Obama Administration Considering Ending use of for-Profit Immigration Detention Centers

First Posted: Sep 09, 2016 08:56 AM EDT
Jeh Johnson

Jeh Johnson (Photo : Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is rumored to be considering ending its much debated relationship with for-profit immigration detention centers.

The proposed moves follow a recent Federal Bureau of Prisons decision outlining how the agency will no longer make use of private prison systems. Back on Aug. 18, the Department of Justice ordered that all Bureau of Prisons facilities end their associate with private prisons for the purposes of housing noncitizen inmates.

"The Department of Justice announced that the Bureau of Prisons will reduce and ultimately end its use of private prisons," Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson said in a statement back then. "I directed our Homeland Security Advisory Council...to evaluate whether the immigration detention operations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement should move in the same direction."

Homeland Security Secretary oversees both immigration services and Border Patrol.

A move away from use of the for-profit systems would be seen as a major victory for civil rights and immigration advocacy groups, both of whom have long lobbied for a roll back of the growing use of private-prison systems.

Official Decision due Over Next Couple Months

Word is Johnson is expected to make a formal recommendation to the Homeland Security Advisory Council by the end of November.

Not surprisingly, the idea has already sparked widespread condemnation from immigration officials, all of whom have insisted any such move would not be cost-effective.

 "It would be remarkably detrimental," said one senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official, speaking on the condition of animosity.

The official estimated that not allowing private companies to be a part of the equation would ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars more a year and take authorities at least a decade to implement a new system.

Currently, nine of the country's 10 largest immigration detention centers are privately operated and serve as holding centers for roughly two-thirds of the more than 31,000 people typically held in custody on a daily basis.

Federal 2017 Budget Allocates $2.1 Billion for Detention Centers

For 2017, the Obama administration has budgeted $2.1 billion for detention operations, a marginal decrease from 2016 as the White House has stuck with its plan of reducing the number of people held in detention each day from 34,000 and "960 family beds."

ICE pegs the cost of housing a person in immigrant detention at $127 a day and $161 a day for those held in facilities designed for families.

While the agency has remained mum about how much of those funds go private facilities, a recent analysis by the Grassroots Leadership advocacy group found that roughly half of that $2 billion went to private companies.

Meanwhile, civil rights advocates have documented a pattern of poor medical care and abuse inside the privately run institutions that all seems to lead back to their hell-bent commitment to maximize profits.

 "We certainly see a lot of these problems magnified when a company is seeking to extract as much profit as it can out of a detention center," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership.

In addition, the use of jails leaves many non-criminal detainees at potential risk, as they are routinely housed in the proximity of potentially dangerous criminals.

 "They are not better-run, they are not better-managed, they are not providing better service," he said.

Since ICE officials made their announcement, the two leading publicly traded prison companies (Correction Corporation of America and Geo Group) have seen their stock prices noticeably slide. Following DOJ's earlier announcement back in August, stock at the two companies fell by roughly 40 percent.

DOJ's decision to steer clear of private prisons followed a Nation and Investigate Fund investigation that uncovered longstanding medical neglect at privately ran prisons, including dozens of fatalities.

Various watchdog groups have long documented similar instances of abuse at various immigration detention facilities.

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