Government leaders increasingly recognize that society is better off when the profit motive is removed from the business of incarcerating people. President Joe Biden is among them.
Less than a week into his term, Biden issued an executive order that will phase out Department of Justice contracts with private firms that operate criminal detention facilities. It was a welcome move. But an incomplete one.
The order did not apply to federal contracts for privately-run immigration detention centers. Yet Coloradans don’t have to look any further than the ICE facility in Aurora for a vivid example of what can go wrong when detention and dollars injudiciously mix.
Inmate advocates have long highlighted the noxious incentives at the heart of the private-prison industry: The whole business model relies on a steady supply of humans to lock in cages. Biden’s executive order alludes to the perverse results, where the profit motive is at least partly to blame for America’s shameful rate of incarceration: “There is broad consensus that our current system of mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer. To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate.”
As of 2017, more than 8% of state and federal prisoners — that’s 121,718 people — were incarcerated in privately-operated facilities, according to The Sentencing Project. That’s way up compared to 2000, though 2012 was the peak, when the figure was 137,220 people. In Colorado, the private prison population jumped from 2,099 in 2000 to 3,760 in 2017.
In a 2020 op-ed in The Colorado Sun, Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty wrote that Colorado and other states have signed contracts with private corporations that guarantee them a minimum number of prisoners to house. The reform-minded Dougherty tied Colorado’s use of private prisons to the state’s runaway rate of recidivism, and he noted that private prisons have been shown to underperform in crucial ways: They fail to offer inmates adequate work, academic, mental health, substance abuse and pre-release programs. Why? A private detention facility can’t avoid a conflict between serving society and serving the bottom line. As Dougherty put it, “These corporations benefit from offenders as repeat customers and have financial incentives to limit programs.”
There is a growing movement away from the use of private prisons. Democrats in the Colorado Legislature have pushed the state away from privately-run facilities. In 2019, the Denver City Council voted not to renew contracts with private-prison giants CoreCivic and GEO Group.
GEO operates the ICE facility in Aurora, and its track record is dismal. In 2019, The Colorado Independent summarized the facility’s numerous deficiencies, which a federal inspector general’s report echoed: “severely inadequate medical services; above-average restriction of basic human experiences, including face-to-face family visitation and time outdoors; and harsh disciplinary standards that have included unnecessary handcuffing.”
The Aurora facility is part of a vast network of privately-run immigration facilities. In 2017, almost 3 in 4 immigrants in detention — more than 26,000 people — were in privately-run facilities, according to The Sentencing Project, which said that “the privately detained immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.”
This week more than 70 members of Congress, including Rep. Jason Crow, in whose district the Aurora ICE facility sits, and Rep. Joe Neguse, signed a letter calling on Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary David Pekoske to phase out the use of private immigration detention facilities. Such facilities “have been plagued by a long history of abuse and neglect,” the letter says, and it discusses a further intolerable aspect of them — reduced transparency and accountability. When a public service is delegated to a third party, the extra layer of authority obscures the public’s view of its operations.
It doesn’t matter if a person has committed a crime or not, or is a U.S. citizen or not, or is in the country illegally or not — when American authorities detain any person, Americans expect that person to be treated humanely. Failure to do so dishonors the jailer in as much as it harms the detainee.
Biden’s executive order was welcome, but it contained an implicit indictment of private detention facilities of all kinds. The federal government should acknowledge the inherent injustices in all privately-run lock-ups and stop using them as part of immigration policy.