Last Thursday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report admonishing government officials over the treatment of immigrants held at private prisons that contract with federal immigration authorities. Detailed in the report were a litany of alleged abuses at those detention centers, many of which are in Texas, from denying immigrants proper medical care to retaliation from prison staff and possible constitutional rights violations.
Yet on that very same day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new multimillion-dollar contract with one of the companies accused of holding immigrants in “inhumane” conditions that are “inconsistent with American values.” Advocates and immigration attorneys say they fear the new contract, for a pilot program to test a probation-like system for immigrant families released from lockup, only further expands the private prison industry's reach in the U.S. immigration system.
Perhaps the Geo contract, while troubling to advocates, shouldn't be entirely unexpected. Federal immigration officials have before ignored calls for ICE to wean itself off private prison companies. For instance, this 2009 report, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security and written by a former director of the federal Office of Detention Policy and Planning, concluded that immigrant detainees — many of whom have never committed a crime (immigration violations are civil, not criminal, cases) — shouldn't be treated like criminals and that ICE, not private prison companies, should operate its own detention centers to safeguard against abuses and ensure greater oversight.
Yet six years later, private prison corporations now house nearly half of the nation's immigrant detainees.
"It speaks to the power of this industry," says Bob Libal with the Austin-based civil rights group Grassroots Leadership. "Now, ICE is just giving these companies another way to profit off immigrants."