When the Justice Department announced two months ago that it wanted to end the use of private prisons, Cibola County Correctional Center was exactly the kind of facility that officials desired to shut down. After a history of questionable deaths and substandard medical care, the New Mexico facility lost its contract. In recent weeks, it was emptied of inmates.
But the vacancies won’t last for long.
As soon as this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which is separate from the Justice Department — is going to begin moving immigrant detainees into the facility under a new set of agreements with Corrections Corporation of America, a county official said.
The country’s immigration enforcement agency is expanding its use of for-profit prisons, even while another government agency says the facilities are less safe and effective than government-run prisons. The move illustrates the difficulties of ending the government’s reliance on private prisons and jails, especially as immigration authorities deal with an influx of detainees.
In addition to inking a new contract for up to 1,116 beds at Cibola County, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, recently extended a contract with Corrections Corporation of America for a 2,400-bed facility in Texas. The agency also seems to be eyeing jail space in Youngstown, Ohio, where Corrections Corporation of America has posted advertisements for several job openings, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Justice Department’s announcement in August that it would eventually stop using private prisons was a significant critique of the industry. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote that for-profit facilities “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as government-run prisons.
Yates referred to an inspector general report that found private facilities had higher rates of assaults and eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated each year on average. The report listed many examples of mayhem at private facilities, including a May 2012 riot at the Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi in which 20 people were injured and a correctional officer was killed. That incident, according to the report, involved 250 inmates who were upset about low-quality food and medical care.
Jennifer D. Elzea, an ICE spokeswoman, said in a statement the agency was “committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody.” She said the agency used various contractors and other arrangements to house inmates “to meet the agency’s detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer.”
The Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, said soon after the Justice Department’s announcement that it would consider whether to follow suit. The department has created a subcommittee to study the issue, and its evaluation is due Nov. 30. If DHS ultimately decides to end its use of private prisons, the long-term future of a facility such as Cibola would be unclear.
Gang- and drug-related violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has been driving a surge of asylum seekers from Central America, who are winding up in the detention centers. Until two years ago, such asylum seekers were generally not held in detention.
For the first years of the Obama administration, the United States kept fewer than 100 beds for family detention, but — under pressure to show border security was of concern — had plans to expand to more than 3,000 beds by the end of 2014.
As of August, ICE had an average daily population of 33,957 across the facilities it uses, according to data provided by the agency.
On Wednesday, the ACLU sent a letter to that subcommittee blasting Immigration and Customs Enforcement for moving forward with private prison contracts while the advisory council’s review was ongoing.
Singling out the Cibola facility in particular, the advocacy organization wrote that the case “illustrates how CCA is literally operating a revolving door — shuttling out prisoners one month, shuttling in immigration detainees the next month.”
“It’s astonishing that a prison that was found unfit and unsuitable for federal prisoners is now going to be used to lock up immigration detainees,” said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel with the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.
Lin acknowledged that immigration detention rates have “exploded,” which she attributed to the government’s tough stance on detaining asylum seekers crossing the southern border. Those detainees are not criminals, but often people who have fled countries where violence has grown rampant.
A Corrections Corporation of America spokesman did not return messages seeking comment.
In the meantime, demand remains for the facilities to remain open, one way or another.
Cibola County Board of Commissioners Chair T. Walter Jaramillo said local authorities had been pushing for the private prison deal since the Bureau of Prisons decided to end its contract to use the facility this summer.
“It’s employment,” Jaramillo said, adding the contract would prevent 350 people from losing jobs. “It’s all about the economics in the community.”
At the time of the Justice Department’s directive, the Bureau of Prisons had just 13 contract facilities, including Cibola, totaling a little more than 22,000 inmates.
Facilities contracted by both the Bureau of Prisons and ICE house those in the country without documentation. The Bureau of Prisons is responsible for those convicted of federal crimes, while ICE detains illegal immigrants convicted of state offenses that render them deportable and those pursuing asylum or other claims in immigration court.
The private-prison industry has been lobbying against the Justice Department’s directive to end the use of its facilities. The industry has argued that the government’s comparison of for-profit facilities to government-run prisons was unfair because they house different populations.
Officials have said the successful implementation of the directive depends on continued reductions in the federal prison population. As the inmate population goes down, the Bureau of Prisons plans to modify or allow contracts with private prison operators to expire, with the goal of ultimately ending their use entirely.