The Department of Homeland Security should continue relying on private prison contractors to maintain its immigration detention practices, a key subcommittee recommends in a draft report. Though the group criticizes the existing oversight of immigration detention centers, it takes a more critical stance toward county jails than privately-owned or operated facilities.
In a draft report dated today, the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Subcommittee on Privatized Immigration Detention Facilities recommends to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson that ICE has little choice but to continue its longstanding entanglement with private prison operators. Coming only months after the Justice Department announced that it plans to reduce its reliance on private facilities, today’s draft report surely is reason for celebration by the private prison industry. Major private prisons saw their stock value tumble in the aftermath of the Justice Department’s announcement, but have experienced a resurgence since Donald Trump’s victory.
Private prison corporations are deeply enmeshed in ICE’s confinement practices. The report notes that sixty-five percent of all ICE detainees are held in private, for-profit facilities. Another twenty-five percent are held in county jails. Only ten percent of detainees are located in facilities run by the federal government. Moreover, housing migrants in private facilities tends to be less expensive. According to the report, it costs ICE on average $144.23 per day to house a single person in a private facility compared to $184.35 per day in an ICE-run site (8). Shifting away from the current detention regime to one that is entirely owned and operated by ICE would cost as much as $5-6 billion dollars, ICE told the subcommittee (8).
The report evidences a palpable concern about ICE’s use of county jails to house civil immigration detainees. Indeed, the subcommittee describes county jails as the “most problematic facilities for immigration detention.” Any reform that expands ICE’s use of county jails, the subcommittee added, “would not represent improvement.” Instead, ICE should “reduce reliance on detention in county jails.” What matters most, the report adds, is how detained migrants are treated, not who operates the detention centers (5).
ICE simply has no choice but to continue using private prisons, the report’s authors seem to believe. As the report explains, “Fiscal considerations, combined with the need for realistic capacity to handle sudden increases in detention, indicate that DHS’s use of private for-profit detention will continue” (10). If ICE was working on a clean slate, things might be different. “Because legitimate restriction on physical liberty is inherently and exclusively a governmental authority, much could be said for a fully government-owned and government operated detention model, if one were starting a new detention system from scratch. But of course we are not starting anew” (4).
This fatalistic view proved too much for one subcommittee member. Marshall Fitz, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote a strident dissent about the subcommittee’s “conclusion that reliance on private prisons should, or inevitably must, continue” (10). Tucked into footnote 14, Fitz acknowledges that it would take years of concerted effort to remove private prison operators from immigration detention, but he “disagree[s] that these obstacles require our deference to the status quo.” Instead, he noted a “preliminary judgement…that a measured but deliberate shift away from the private prison model is warranted” (10). Fitz deserves much credit for being willing to explore whether it makes sense for ICE to continue relying on private prison contractors rather than get caught up in the practical difficulties of disentangling the two.
[Update (December 2): News reports and statements from people who attended the HSAC public meeting at which the subcommittee presented this report to the full committee indicate that draft report was received rather critically by many members of the full HSAC. According to a report in USA Today, ”
In an usually contentious public session, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, rejected a core finding in a 23-page panel report, concluding that the agency would continue to depend on private contractors for the foreseeable future because of a lack of capacity in government-run facilities and the cost associated with building and managing new ones.
Instead, members adopted a dissenting version of the report, suggesting that fiscal concerns and enforcement policy should not “require our deference to the status quo.”]
Of course, this report’s conclusion may ultimately be irrelevant. It seems unlikely that the incoming Trump Administration would have had much interest in cutting of private prison contractors even had the subcommittee recommended that ICE move in that direction. Indeed, it would not come as a surprise to learn that the Trump Justice Department rescinds the decision to scale back its own reliance on private prisons.
[Update (December 7): The final version of the HSAC report, including a vote count, is available here.]