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Ending local detention quotas, secret perks for corporations in federal contracts and profiting off jailing immigrant families

By Ghita Schwarz and Silky Shah, The Hill

In May, the nation’s two largest private prison contractors announced dramatic increases in their first-quarter earnings for the year. The GEO Group, Inc. (GEO) reported a 17 percent increase over the same period in 2015 and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reported a more modest 5 percent rise. Also in May, the Obama administration declared its intentions to launch a series of raids to capture women and children who have fled violence in Central America. These two developments are not unrelated; CCA and GEO run the two largest family detention centers in the country.

Prison subcontractors, both public and private, depend heavily on the Obama administration’s expansion of immigration detention, and in recent years on the detention of asylum-seeking families fleeing violence in Central America. Their successes are attributable in significant part to lucrative immigration detention contracts with special prerequisites: “guaranteed minimum” payments, contractual provisions that require the government to pay local jails to incarcerate a minimum number of people per day. These guaranteed minimums function as local lockup quotas, incentivizing the detention of immigrants in specific facilities, almost all of which are operated or serviced by private contractors. 

Over the years, the detention system has increasingly been privatized, with roughly 62 percent of beds now operated by private prison companies. The indirect benefit for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is that now the majority of their contracts are not subject to the rules of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), making the entire system less transparent. Despite ICE’s extensive attempts to keep the financial terms of government contracts with private companies secret, the existence of guaranteed minimums was revealed in Banking on Detention: Local Lockup Quotas and the Immigrant Dragnet, published last year by Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights. That report documented the use of guaranteed minimums in detention center contracts at over a dozen facilities and the great efforts ICE has taken to keep financial details of these government contracts secret.

Now, thanks to a recent release of information through FOIA requests, we know that local lockup quotas are far more prevalent than what was initially thought. As detailed in the update to our report, guaranteed minimums account for at least 12,821 beds on any given day – nearly 40 percent of the 34,000 immigration detention beds that Congress funds through its controversial “detention bed quota.” While some public entities also benefit from guaranteed minimums, fully 93 percent of these beds – 11,936 per day – exist in facilities that contract with private companies. Furthermore, family detention facilities have also been revealed as beneficiaries of guaranteed minimums, with the public facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania and the notorious GEO-run Karnes detentioncenter in Texas enjoying lucrative quotas for jailing refugee women and children.  

Immigration detention, the fastest-growing component of mass incarceration, costs taxpayers $2 billion dollars a year and causes incalculable suffering to hundreds of thousands of immigrant families and communities. Bed quotas are particularly costly; the sponsors of the Protecting Taxpayers and Communities from Local Detention Quotas Act, which would bar ICE from using guaranteed minimums in federal immigration contracts, estimate that taxpayers could save $15 billion over the next decade by ending the detention bed quota.

The public increasingly believes that using immigrants and refugees to improve prison contractors’ portfolios is misguided and wrong; in just the last year, the University of California and Columbia University agreed to divest from private prison contractors, and the town of Gary, Indiana, has stopped the construction of a new GEO-run detention facility. ICE must stop affirming immigration detention as a market-based activity and remove guaranteed minimums from detention center contracts. Congress should follow suit. It must bar the use of local lockup quotas and eliminate from the annual federal appropriations bill the “detention bed quota” that incentivizes the mass incarceration of immigrants.  Lockup quotas – and government-sanctioned profiteering off immigration detention – are moral and financial quicksand.

Ghita Schwarz is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Silky Shah is co-director of Detention Watch Network. The organizations have been receiving documents from a 2014 FOIA lawsuit and released a joint report today on local detention quotas.

Originally published by The Hill on June 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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