Legal advocates have argued for years that private companies hired by the federal government to house prison inmates tend to be understaffed, provide poor medical care and function with scant oversight. Last week, the Justice Department announced a plan to end contracts with corporations that house federal prison inmates.

“The fact of the matter is that private prisons just don’t compare favorably to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of safety or security or the services that they offer to inmates there,” said Sally Yates, deputy U.S. attorney general.

A number of prominent immigration advocates in California are looking to take matters a step further. They want the same rule changes to apply to inmates who are being held on immigration charges. Since immigration falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Justice Department, the DOJ's rule change does not apply to them.  

“The exact same concerns that you have about housing people criminally in a privately run facility arise when you house people civilly in an immigration facility,” said Michael Kaufman, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.  

Not to mention, the number of immigration detainees in private detention facilities is significantly higher. An estimated 22,000 federal inmates in the Bureau of Prisons are housed in private prisons, whereas the average number of immigration detainees in private facilities is around 35,000.

“Sixty-two percent of all immigration detention beds are operated by private, for-profit companies nationally,” said Christina Fialho, executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a nonprofit that visits and monitors more than 40 immigration detention facilities nationwide.

In California, that figure is 85 percent; roughly 3,700 detainees are spread out over four privately run detention facilities. The rest are held in county jail facilities, such as the Theo Lacy and James A. Musick facilities in Orange County, which contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of Homeland Security.  

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, however, is pushing a reform bill to change that. Pushing it, in fact, all the way to the governor’s desk. The Dignity Not Detention Act (SB 1289) would prohibit any city or county in California from entering into a contract with a private immigration detention center. The bill won approval in the state Assembly on Tuesday, by a vote of 42-29. It now returns to the Senate for final approval before it is sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Currently existing contracts will be phased out,” Lara said. “We will not allow for the contracts to be reapproved.” 

The law also would offer recourse to the state attorney general for immigrants suffering inhumane conditions of detention, and would authorize the office to seek damages in court on their behalf. Lara had the standards from ICE’s best practices inserted into the bill. “I think this is where we're heading nationally, and California has a chance to lead on this issue once again,” he said.       

Immigration advocates raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center, operated by GEO Group Inc.; Credit:

Immigration advocates raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center, operated by GEO Group Inc.; Credit:

Last year, the ACLU of Southern California was among a host of immigration advocates that publicly raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center, operated by GEO Group Inc.  

Michael Kaufman, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said it wasn’t until the death of a Salvadoran immigrant detainee named Raúl Ernesto Morales Ramos at the Adelanto facility last year that ICE finally instructed GEO to change the medical care provider. Morales was taken to a hospital in Palmdale, where he died of intestinal cancer three days later. GEO's medical care provider had not diagnosed or treated the cancer, and it went undetected until authorities saw “unusual bleeding” three days before his death.  

“Adelanto presents one of the tragic cases of standards not working as they should. That death was entirely preventable. But they only made changes to medical care after it was too late.” As of now, ICE detention standards are not legally enforceable, Kaufman said.  

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency's decision to continue to employ private-prison contractors is unlikely to change and explained it as a question of volume. ICE houses an average of 33,000 immigrant detainees a day, and the duration of custody is usually a matter of weeks, rather than the years that inmates serve in the federal Bureau of Prisons. Outsourcing, Kice said, is more cost-effective for ICE. 

But Lara and other prominent advocates see a profit-motive in such talk. When Congress appropriates money to ICE, the appropriation comes with language requiring that ICE shall fill the mandate of beds the money provides for.  It's known as the “bed mandate,” and advocates worry it is driving ICE to fill those spaces with immigration detainees. Lara referred to the incentive as “morally reprehensible.”  

Issues such as understaffing and poor medical care are likewise tied to the bottom line of the private prison corporations, said Kaufman of the ACLU. 

Certainly, the financial stakes are high for the three cities and towns in California that have already contracted with private prison companies. The contracts have been a major economic boon to the cities of Holtville, which contracts with Management and Training Corporation to operate the Imperial Regional Detention Center;  MacFarland, which contracts with GEO Group Inc. to operate Mesa Verde Detention Facility; and Adelanto, which contracts with GEO to operate Adelanto. The Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego is operated by the Corrections Corp. of America and contracts with directly with ICE. 

John R. Woodard, a council member from Adelanto, estimates the city will lose up to $35 million annually should its contract with GEO be terminated, in a letter Woodard wrote in opposition to Lara's proposal.

Adelanto houses more than 1,800 immigration detainees a day and Adelanto receives $111 per bed per day, according to a report released by Lara's office. It can be more expedient for a private prison company to partner directly with a city or county,  because to partner with ICE directly entails a formal bidding process, which can be waived through a local partnership.  

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