“THE 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 (ICE), the law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 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.
Following President Trump’s executive orders in January to secure the US border with Mexico and to ban US entry to citizens of several Middle Eastern and African countries, there appears to have been a marked rise of arrests of non-US citizens across the country. From Texas to California to New York, there are reports that ICE is arresting and detaining more people than ever.
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.
Mary Small, policy director of the nonprofit Detention Watch Network told the Project On Government Oversight that while the Office of Detention Policy and Planning wasn’t perfect, its loss is a huge blow for transparency and accountability of the private detention center complex.
“Sunlight didn’t fix the problem,” she said of the office’s disclosures, “But it started to help a little. Now we’re not just moving in the opposite direction, but we’re sprinting in the opposite direction.”
What We (Don’t) Know
Even fundamental information on America’s immigrant detention complex is hard to pin down. For instance, because ICE does not regularly and proactively disclose how many people are held in its detention centers, it is difficult to get a comprehensive count of how many people have been detained following the President’s executive orders. Here’s what we do know.
There were 41,000 people in ICE detention centers in November 2016, according to a statement by former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. An estimated 65 percent of all ICE detainees were housed in private facilities as of September 2016, according to a report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
However, because these numbers are based on daily average populations in detention centers, they don’t provide a full picture of just how many people go through the ICE private detention center system.
According to data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, over 341,000 detainees “booked out” of ICE’s privately operated detention centers in fiscal year 2015, meaning hundreds of thousands of detainees were either transferred to other facilities, released from custody, or deported. Book-outs from private detention centers accounted for nearly half of all book-outs that year, according to TRAC.
As always, there is a caveat to these numbers. According to TRAC, “ICE provided incomplete information on the operator of facilities it used, so the number operated by private companies is likely to be underestimated.”
A Model for More Transparency?
So what would a more transparent federal detention center system look like? The Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons may provide a model.
Unlike ICE’s detention centers which house non-US citizens suspected of entering the country illegally or suspected of committing national security-related crimes, the Bureau of Prisons’ facilities house inmates who are convicted of violating federal laws. The majority of the agency’s inmates are US citizens, and the majority of them are housed in government-run facilities.
There are almost 189,000 inmates in the Bureau of Prisons system as of April 2017, according to the agency. Eighty-one percent of them are housed in facilities managed by the agency, while 11 percent are housed in privately managed facilities. The remaining 8 percent are housed in facilities managed by state or local governments.
The above statistics—readily available on the agency’s website and updated as often as every week— demonstrate on their own the stark disparity between the Bureau of Prisons and ICE when it comes to proactively releasing data about inmates and detainees. And, according to an analysis by POGO, the differences only become more obvious as you delve deeper into the data.
What Data Do ICE and the Bureau of Prisons Proactively Publish Online?
Based on POGO’s analysis, it is clear that even the most basic information about ICE detainees and detention facilities is not available online. ICE’s online Freedom of Information Act library catalogs some of the data the agency has released based on public requests, but the data is piecemeal and does not provide a holistic picture of the ICE detention center system. Nor does ICE routinely make public its solicitations of contracts to private companies to operate its detention centers or the contracts it signs with private detention center companies, which leaves the public largely in the dark about these multi-million dollar contracts paid for by taxpayer dollars.
In contrast, the Bureau of Prisons regularly publishes data on its facilities and inmates, including demographic statistics that provide a picture of the agency’s inmate population. The agency also publishes its solicitations of contracts to private companies and the contracts it signs with these companies to run its prisons.
Beyond the Reach of FOIA?
Unlike government agencies, private companies that are contracted by the federal government to run ICE detention centers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This makes it much more difficult to obtain information about these facilities.
While the public can file FOIA requests with ICE or other parts of the federal government for records related to these facilities, any records solely in the possession of the contractors are out of reach. And it can be a battle even to get the government documents.
The nonprofit groups Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights waged a three-and-a-half year legal battle to obtain government documents—including contracts with private detention contractors—on the “detention bed quota,” an ICE and DHS policy that requires 34,000 detention center beds to be filled at all times. After ICE and DHS withheld information, the groups sued the government to compel records be turned over. The government lost in court in 2016 and decided not to appeal, but two of the biggest contractors—Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America)—intervened to block the release of the information. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the contractors’ appeal this year and denied another request for review in April.
“Private entities that take on public functions must be subject to public scrutiny,” Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Ghita Schwarz said in a written statement. “FOIA is about the people’s right to know what their government is doing—allowing private mega-corporations to dictate how the government informs the public of its detention practices would be devastating to American democracy.”
1. ICE should proactively publish data on its detention centers—both government-run and privately run. The data should be available online in easily accessible and user-friendly formats. The data should be updated on a constant basis.
2. Congress should pass the Private Prison Information Act of 2017 (H.R. 1980) into law, which would expand the Freedom of Information Act to apply to private detention facilities.”