The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is sending mixed signals about the future of the privately owned and managed detention centers with which it does business. Those facilities hold an estimated 85 percent of the migrants detained in California for immigration violations.
On Dec. 1, the Homeland Security Advisory Council recommended that the department begin to phase out privately operated immigration detention centers. The advisory council took the unusual step of overturning the recommendation of its own subcommittee, whose members endorsed maintaining the status quo when it comes to for-profit prisons.
“It was fairly dramatic,” says Michael Kaufman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, which opposes privately run detention centers. “We did not have great hopes going into this. The committee did not seem to be staffed by people who would necessarily be inclined to see problems with private prisons."
Legal advocates have argued for years that private prison companies hired by the federal government tend to be understaffed, provide poor medical care and function with scant oversight. In August, the Justice Department announced a plan to end contracts with private prisons that house federal inmates. But until Thursday, Homeland Security gave no indication it would follow suit.
Nationally, there are about 33,000 immigration prisoners in privately run detention facilities. In California, roughly 3,700 migrants are held in the state's four private facilities.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of Homeland Security, told L.A. Weekly that outsourcing to private prisons is the most cost-effective means for ICE to accommodate the sheer volume of inmates. ICE emailed a statement to L.A. Weekly saying that “leadership will review and consider the council’s recommendations and will implement any changes, as appropriate.”
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the private detention operator GEO Group, called the advisory council's decision “completely unfounded.”
"The HSAC subcommittee spent months investigating this issue and concluded that the facts support the continued use of privately contracted facilities,” Paez said in a statement emailed to L.A. Weekly.
Last year, Salvadoran immigrant Raúl Ernesto Morales Ramos died at Adelanto Detention Center, a GEO Group facility about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Morales' cause of death was intestinal cancer, which had gone undetected by the facility's medical provider until authorities saw "unusual bleeding"; he died three days later.
The ACLU of Southern California was among a host of immigration advocates that raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees at Adelanto. The ACLU's Kaufman says incidents such as the death at Adelanto might have influenced the Homeland Security Advisory Council's vote. "The noteworthy thing is they're phasing out private prisons; they're unsafe and it's time for DHS to move along from using them."
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But the timing of the vote, at the twilight of the Obama administration, prompted other prominent opponents of private prisons to question its significance.
“This president has deported more people than any other in recent history,” State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said of Obama in a statement emailed to L.A. Weekly, “and it's unfortunate that this debate is happening at the tail end of his administration, when real change is unlikely.”
Today, Lara reintroduced the Dignity Not Detention Act, a bill that would prohibit any city or county in California from entering into a contract with a private immigration detention center. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a previous version of the bill earlier this year.
Lara also pointed out that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump casts a long shadow over the advisory council's decision. Trump's surprise win last month sent stock prices soaring in the private-prison industry. The price of stock for the CoreCivic Co. climbed 43 percent a day after the election; GEO Group’s stock climbed 21 percent.