- George Prentice
It’s a problem that plagued Barack Obama’s administration.
A review by the Department of Justice inspector general released last August showed that private prisons, which hold 12 percent of about 200,000 federal inmates, have more "safety and security incidents per capita" than those operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (PDF).
Immigration facilities, often run by the same companies, too have been plagued by complaints about conditions, including available health care and safety. About 72 percent of more than 325,000 immigrant detainees were held in facilities run by many of the same private prison companies that run federal prisons, according to 2015 data obtained by TRAC, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The justice department responded to these concerns last August by ending its contracts with private prison companies and beginning a five-year phase-out of their use. The Department of Homeland Security conducted a review but said that they would not do the same.
In this system of detention, lawyers and advocates struggled to get information about the ways people in immigration detention were being treated. The National Immigration Justice Center, part of the Heartland Alliance based in Chicago, sued the federal government to access Congressionally mandated inspection reports. DHS was unresponsive to their requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit took three years and their database now has government documents through December 2015.
But the center found that the inspections system failed to curb abuses and were shrouded in secrecy. They chronicled unexplained deaths and lapses in medical care.
In February, an asylum-seeker detained at the Prairieland Detention Center in Texas had been complaining of headaches, nosebleeds and memory loss before she collapsed and was taken to a hospital on February 11. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor but was returned to the detention center until she was granted bond on March 2. Amnesty International was among the organizations demanding her release.
Prairieland is a new detention center run by private prison company Emerald Correctional Management LLC. It began operations just after Trump’s inauguration.
NIJC has questions about how the Trump administration might improve both oversight and access to information about conditions at these detention centers.
“How will you hold ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contractors accountable for the basic health and safety of the people taxpayers are paying billions of dollars to detain?” asks NIJC spokesperson Tara Tidwell Cullen of the Trump administration. “Being detained by ICE should not be a death sentence.”
She also hopes that the Trump administration will make reports and contracts — as well as updated lists of all the facilities used to detain immigrants — publicly available without the lengthy process of submitting information requests and filing lawsuits. NIJC has pending requests for the government to produce documents related to how bonds are calculated and how many beds immigration agents are filling and why.
So far, Trump’s Department of Justice has announced it would resume contracting with private prison companies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a one-paragraph memo reversing the Obama-era decision that ending those contracts “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
One of Donald Trump’s executive orders signed on January 25 called on DHS to "allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico."
The stakes are very high for people held in prisons and detention centers, as well as their families. So our question for you, President Trump, is how will you address oversight of facilities run by private prison companies as you expand their use? Click here to tweet the question to the president.
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