Yesterday afternoon, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Sally Yates, circulated a memo instructing Bureau of Prisons officials to begin phasing out their contracts with private prison operators. Coming on the heels of the Obama administration’s ongoing push for criminal justice reform, the announcement was nothing short of a bombshell.
For nearly two decades, the federal government has steadily ramped its use of private facilities to alleviate strain from a booming inmate population, while prison reform advocates have cast doubts on the ethics and effectiveness of private prisons. For them, the decision amounts to an unprecedented victory.
But for the over 24,000 inmates housed in private detention centers affiliated with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there is still no immediate hope for systemic reform. Indeed, the Justice Department announcement applies only to the 13 private prisons operating directly under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, leaving the 46 ICE facilities operated by private contractors in tact for the time being.
Many have speculated whether the privatization of immigrant detention centers would be in any way affected by this decision, and the consensus seems to be that immigration advocates have a long, hard road ahead of them. According to a recent report in The Intercept, “severing ties [with private companies] would be a logistical feat of immense proportions” due to the decentralized, country-based nature of ICE contracts.
To boot, ICE’s dependence on private facilities is even more deeply rooted than the federal BOP, with nearly 70 percent of the agency’s inmates housed in detention centers run by private companies. ICE detention centers have also come under increasing scrutiny for their poor conditions and questionable treatment of inmates, compounding the fact that many of those detained in their facilities are families and individuals who pose no threat to the general population.
In light of the announcement, advocacy groups have urged the federal government to go a step further. “Refugees, children, parents and everyday people seeking a better life are routinely locked up, abused and even killed by corporate run immigrant detention facilities,” United We Dream Advocacy insisted in a recent statement. “And despite the evidence, the Department of Homeland Security refuses to shut them down.”
Nevertheless, there is still hope that the BOP decision will set a precedent that will eventually have ripple effects throughout the justice system, including ICE and state facilities. As director of the ACLU David Fatih recently pointed out to The Washington Post, the state prison systems look to the federal government for best practices, and may soon begin to follow suit with their own private contracts. He also urged ICE to follow their lead.
In the end, it may take longer than some would like for ICE’s detention system to feel the effects of this watershed decision, but with continued pressure on from advocates and activists working from inside and outside of the system, we can hope to one day see the end of ICE’s private prison model. With stocks for prisons corporations down 35 percent at the time of writing, it seems things are already well on their way.