In the waning months of 2016, the growing trend in the executive branch was disdain for the private prison system. The Department of Justice issued a memorandum stopping the practice altogether, which prompted action by other federal agencies. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave serious consideration to ending the practice of relying on private detention centers but begrudgingly determined that it would be impossible to maintain their obligations under the law relying solely on government detention centers. Less than a year later, private prisons and detention centers are on the rise.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Justice Department’s position and reinstated reliance of private prisons. The aggressive enforcement of immigration laws coupled with millions of undocumented aliens in the United States has actually caused ICE to require more detention centers than ever before. Nine out of the 10 largest ICE detention centers in the U.S. are now private, and approximately 65 percent of immigrant detainees are operated by for-profit prison corporations. The two largest corporations, GEO Group and CivicCore (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA) began in the 1980s, when the corporations lobbied for laws that would expand detention and other forms of incarceration. Today there are still new private prisons being built, including plans for openings in Texas and Georgia.
The reliance on private prisons and detention facilities give rise to serious concerns about the motivations of those in office while their justifications merit rigorous debate and scrutiny. However, it is the rapid expansion of detention facilities that create more immediate concerns. Growth at such a rapid pace, while good for investors, has led to accusations of inadequate controls and supervision, poor food and medical care, and even potential labor violations. While civil lawsuits may loom in the distance for some of the poorly run detention centers, the Administration is moving full-steam ahead with its aggressive removal practices. ICE is likely to lean heavily on private facilities as it identifies and apprehends increasing numbers of individuals residing in the United States unlawfully.