Immigration imprisonment is no stranger to the push and pull of vested interests. From private prison corporations that build lock-up facilities to food service vendors, the modern immigration imprisonment regime relies heavily on third parties to provide routine functions. As I write in Naturalizing Immigration Imprisonment (forthcoming in the California Law Review), “Having locked itself into the policy choice of using imprisonment to enforce immigration law, the federal government—perhaps inadvertently—created a body of third parties dependent on that policy choice.” Part of what sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza calls the “immigration industrial complex,” third parties invested in immigration imprisonment make it all that much less likely that the United States substantially scale back its confinement course.
To do so would require shedding the many mouths that depend on ICE’s annual allotment of roughly $2 billion to detention operations.
Sheriffs and municipal police departments run the hundreds of county and city jails with which ICE contracts. Local government officials often view ICE detention contracts as lucrative sources of revenue. Since DHS pays the entire cost of detaining migrants pending removal, civil immigration detention is seen as a way of injecting federal dollars into local economies. The former mayor of Oakdale, Louisiana, a small town that now houses one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country, explained that he lobbied the INS to build an immigration detention center in town because the facility “would lead to the ‘economic rebirth’ of Oakdale.” So long as ICE continues sending a constant number of detainees to a particular facility, local governments can profit from such arrangements. The problem local governments encounter, however, is that ICE routinely shifts its detainee population for a host of reasons. When this happens, local governments see their federal revenue stream diminish. Because counties come to rely on ICE revenue to fund jail operations, maintenance costs, or payments on government debts, fewer inmates means they struggle to meet their financial obligations. Reflecting on this experience in Glade County, Florida, a county commissioner lamented, “They [ICE] knew they either had to send us inmates or we would close down.”
Aside from local governments, ICE relies heavily on private prison corporations. Though private prisons companies are active in every segment of the United States’ incarceration system—from local jails to federal prisons—Congress has expressly commanded DHS to consider leasing or purchasing an existing facility prior to constructing any new detention center. This provision has the effect of enhancing the role that private prison companies play in immigration detention compared to other types of incarceration. Roughly 8 percent of all prisoners in the United States and 18 percent of all federal prisoners are held in private prisons. By contrast, between 40 and 50 percent of the civil immigration detention population is held in a privately owned or operated facility. The two largest private prison corporations in the United States, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, are heavily involved in civil immigration detention.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, Crimmigration Law 243-44 (2015) (citations omitted).
Last month, the National Immigrant Justice Center, a leading advocacy group based in Chicago, released a detailed report on immigration detention center contracts that suggests just how deeply entrenched private prison corporations and local governments are in contemporary immigration imprisonment [click here to download a copy of the report]. Having obtained contracts for facilities that housed approximately 92% of ICE’s available beds in 2012, NIJC found a number of troubling patterns that make immigration imprisonment highly lucrative and poorly overseen. Facilities that house immigration prisoners take in anywhere from $40 to $133 per person per day (page 7). The Denver Contract Detention Facility, for example, a facility with an average daily population of 400 that is run by the second largest private prison corporation in the United States, the GEO Group, guarantees a rate of $130.34 for the first 300 migrants detained (page 13).
Meanwhile, ICE can’t even apply the same confinement standards to the dozens of entities operating the reviewed contracts. As I write in Crimmigration Law (page 251), “Despite notoriously troublesome conditions across its network of detention centers, ICE has attempted to limit the worst excesses by promulgating a body of national standards…[but] ICE does not use a single set of standards nationwide. Instead, there are currently three sets of national standards that apply to civil immigration detention facilities.”
All three are readily present in the NIJC report. The South Texas Detention Complex, also operated by GEO—and at an average daily population of 1,665 one of the nation’s largest—applies the most recent standards issued in 2011. Just a few hours drive south, however, the 1,041-person Port Isabel Service Processing Center run by private operator Ahtna, Inc. is subject to outdated standards issued in 2000—three years before ICE even existed. Like the vast majority of facilities whose contracts NIJC reviewed, neither STDC nor PISPC are required to abide by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. A handful of contracts don’t identify any set of standards that the prison operator is required to meet.
ICE has previously claimed that it updates applicable standards when it renews facility contracts. That’s unlikely to be of much consolation to the 226 people housed daily at the Yuba County Jail in California where 2000 standards will continue to apply at least until the current contract term ends in December 2018. Though that’s three years off, what happens when the contract has no end date? Forty-five facilities operate under indefinite contracts and most of these don’t have any set of standards incorporated into the agreement (page 7).
What these contract data show is what those of us who follow immigration imprisonment know only too well: ICE’s confinement apparatus is good for the bottom line, but bad for everything else.