Immigration and Customs Enforcement has extended its contract to keep the controversial South Texas Family Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility that houses families as they await processing, privately run. The contract renewal was announced last week – months after the Department of Justice said that it would phrase out its contracts with companies that operate private prisons over concerns about their facilities' safety and quality.
At the time, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson also announced that he had directed officials to evaluate whether ICE should also move to end its contracts with privately operated detention centers. (Because the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security are separate government agencies, the DOJ's decision only affects facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.)
“The timing is mind-boggling,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at ACLU's National Prison Project, which aims to ensure that prisons and other places where people might be held follow the law and human rights principles, among other things. “The contract renewal was announced only a few weeks after ICE's own advisory committee on family detention recommended that ICE end family detention and completely overhaul its existing detention policies to protect child welfare.”
The South Texas Family Residential Facility, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America, has been the subject of intense recent criticism. When it was built in 2014, the Obama administration skipped the usual public bidding process and instead gave CCA a $1 billion contract to run the center – no matter how many of its 2,400 beds were actually full, The Washington Post reported in August.
“It averaged out to $300 per person per day if the facility was completely full. And of course that, because it's a fixed-price contract, that goes up for every bed that's unfilled,” Takei said. “Even if you assume that the facility is completely full, that is at least twice as much as what ICE pays for the average adult detention facility.”
CCA will drop its costs by 40 percent as part of the new contract extension, which lasts till 2021, CCA officials told The Tennessean. In a conference call with reporters from that paper, CCA CEO Damon Hininger said, “Building, staffing and operating new facilities to replace all the capacity currently provided by the private sector would cost ICE billions of dollars and result in costly long-term obligations… By contracting for capacity of services from private providers, like CCA, ICE is able to avoid being committed long-term to these obligations and utilize the flexibility of the private sector to meet its changing needs.”
Takei, whose grandparents were held in World War II internment camps due to their Japanese ancestry, toured the South Texas Family Residential Center in 2015 and spoke with some mothers detained there. “When I walked through the Dilley detention facility, it felt like an updated version of those World War II camps,” Takei recalled.
“There are counts throughout the day where people have to check in to show that they haven't tried to escape,” he said. “There are even counts at night where guards walk through and shine flashlights into the housing units, and check and make sure that the children are in their beds. That sends a message to the children: You are a prisoner.”
In the DOJ memo announcing the agency's decision to end its contracts with companies running private prisons, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates pointed to the country's declining rates of federal incarceration as one of the factors that made it possible for the DOJ to end its private prison contracts. Takei said cutting down on what he called ICE's “runaway use of detention” would be similarly important in phasing out privately-run detention facilities.
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CCA-run prisons were among those studied in a DOJ report – released in August and also referenced in Yates' memo – that found private prisons to be less safe and to offer a lower level of services and resources when compared to federal facilities. Since the DOJ announcement in August, CCA's stock has plummeted.
The Houston Press reached out to ICE and CCA for comment. While we did not hear back from CCA, we received the following emailed statement from an ICE spokeswoman:
“Contract renegotiations are a standard matter of course throughout the term of a contract.”
ICE remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody. The Department considers its Family Residential Centers to be an important part of a comprehensive strategy to address unlawful migration along our southwest border, as the centers allow for prompt removal of individuals arriving as families who have not stated a claim for relief under our laws. ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment. These centers provide medical care, play rooms, social workers, and educational services; and they facilitate access to legal counsel. ICE detainees are housed in a variety of facilities across the United States, including but not limited to ICE-owned-and-operated facilities; local, county or state facilities contracted through Intergovernmental Service Agreements, and contractor-owned-and-operated facilities. ICE uses these various models to meet the agency’s detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer. Through an aggressive inspections program, ICE ensures its facilities adhere to ICE detention standards. ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Oversight is provided by on-site Detention Service Managers employed by ICE, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations’ Detention Monitoring Unit, ICE Office of Detention Oversight, and the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, all of whom have open access to ICE detention facilities.”
The ICE spokeswoman declined to clarify or comment any further.