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More than 340 immigrant rights, faith-based and civil- and labor-rights organizations delivered a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson Wednesday calling for the government to end its use of private prison companies to detain immigrants.

In the letter, advocates reject Secretary Johnson’s plan to review DHS’s use of private contractors,  citing years of studies exposing the human rights violations and lack of accountability that plague the for-profit immigration detention system. Instead, the letter calls for the secretary to create a plan to end DHS’s entanglement with private prison companies.

“It is already clear that DHS must follow the lead of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in severing ties with private prison contractors,” the letter states, referencing the DOJ’s announcement in August that the Bureau of Prisons would no longer contract with private prison companies. Advocates call for the immediate closure of the most dangerous and mismanaged immigration detention facilities, and for DHS to freeze any requests for information, requests for proposals, solicitations and contract renewals for detention facilities. 

“DHS’s reliance on private prison companies has enabled an enormous expansion of this country’s detention system over the past decade, promoting enforcement and deportation policies that target communities of color,” said Silky Shah of the Detention Watch Network. “We’re seeing the consequences in immigrant communities where families are torn apart and asylum-seekers are punished for seeking safety, and in detention centers, which have become sites of rampant human rights violations and abuse.”

“Even when DHS knows there are serious problems at private detention centers, it continues to send immigrants to be held in unsafe conditions rather than terminate the facilities’ contracts or even penalize the detention center operators,” said Mary Meg McCarthy of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “It is reprehensible that private companies are allowed to operate with such impunity, and profit at the expense of immigrants’ basic health and welfare.”

Private prison companies operate about 73 percent of U.S. detention beds that hold immigrants, including some of the most expensive contracts in a system that costs taxpayers approximately $2 billion each year. A recent Washington Post investigation found that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) receives $20 million per month to detain women and children at the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, regardless of how many people actually are in the facility’s custody.

Privately operated detention centers, including CCA facilities, have repeatedly been sites of abuse and mistreatment. Recent reports from DWN, NIJC and other organizations have exposed how DHS’s ineffective inspections system consistently fails to identify and correct problems at these facilities, even when those problems contribute to preventable in-custody deaths.

Advocates acknowledge that ending DHS’s relationship with private prison companies will require the government to significantly decrease the number of people who are needlessly detained each year. Ending the reliance on private prisons should not result in an increase in the use of state or county jails for immigration detention. Instead, ICE should “start by reversing recent policy changes that have driven up detention numbers, including the expansion of family detention and the insistence on detaining many asylum-seekers,” the letter states.

Download the letter (PDF)



Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level to end immigration detention. Visit Follow @DetentionWatch.

Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. Visit Follow @NIJC.