May 6, 2017

America's secret private prisons

Project on Government Oversight - Hundreds of thousands of people are held for varying amounts of time in America’s privately run detention centers every year. Want to know how well these private facilities are managed? What about how they treat their detainees? Or how the federal government holds the private companies accountable for mistakes, negligence, or worse? Good luck trying to find the answers in the sparse data the federal government makes public.

There are currently 112 federal detention centers in America that house people who are arrested for entering the country illegally, and non-US citizens who are deemed a threat to national security, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security that oversees these detention centers. ICE detention centers are either run by the government itself or, in the majority of cases, run by private contractors.

The number of privately run facilities is expected to increase under the Trump Administration. Last month, ICE awarded private-prison company GEO Group a contract to develop and operate a new 1,000-bed detention center in Conroe, Texas. Rumors are swirling that ICE may reopen a detention facility in Raymondville, Texas, that was closed in 2015 after widespread allegations of sexual and physical abuse of detainees and a riot. And an internal Department of Homeland Security memo, obtained by The Washington Post last month, states that ICE has identified 27 facilities to house an additional 21,000 detainees, though it is not clear how many of those facilities will be privately run.

While all ICE detainees face the possibility of deportation, the stakes may be especially high for people sent to private detention centers.

Examples of abuse of detainees at private facilities abound. Detainees in private facilities may be forced to work for $1 a day or no pay at all, as detainees in Denver are alleging in a class action lawsuit against GEO Group. Sexual assaults of detainees are more prevalent at private detention centers, according to a human rights group that recently filed a lawsuit against the DHS, alleging that the agency ignored all but 1 percent of sexual harassment complaints in ICE detention centers. And an estimated 750 detainees in Tacoma, Washington, are currently staging a hunger strike in protest of the poor living conditions they say they experience in a GEO Group-run facility.

Allegations of abuse may grow given that the Trump Administration is moving to reduce oversight of these private facilities. The New York Times reported that, according to unnamed DHS officials, new contracts with private detention centers will not require that the centers provide translation services or prompt medical care to detainees. Additionally, ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning, which, among other things, created guidelines to help prevent sexual assault of detainees, is being shuttered.


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