Private prisons for immigrants not closing anytime soon, top official hints


A top immigration official on Thursday said that closing private immigration prisons would turn the system “upside down,” dashing activists’ hopes that for-profit prisons are in their final days.

Sarah Saldaña, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said her agency depends too heavily on the privately run prisons.

“It would pretty much turn our system upside down,” she said during her testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Saldaña said ending private detention would require ICE “to build detention centers” and “hire staff.”

ICE director Saldaña’s comments come three weeks after the head of the Department of Homeland Security asked an independent advisory council to review the agency’s use of the controversial for-profit immigration detention centers. The conditions found inside the private immigration detention facilities are really no different than the conditions in the for-profit prison system that the Justice Department said it plans to shut down. In many cases they’re run by the same companies.

“We are almost completely contractor-run with respect to our detention facilities,” she said at the ICE oversight hearing.

Immigrant rights activists fighting to end immigrant detention criticized Saldaña’s statements because it’s based on the assumption that people need to be incarcerated in the first place.

“Rather than defending the status quo, which includes holding thousands of people in dangerous and unaccountable facilities, ICE should be reexamining why so many people are needlessly detained in the first place,” said Mary Small, policy director at the Detention Watch Network.

“She is upholding the unnecessary and cruel imprisonment of mothers and children, trans and queer people escaping persecution, poor people of color who can’t afford the exorbitant bonds set, and our families in jail,” Tania Unzueta, policy director for the #Not1More campaign, told Fusion. “We don’t need the government to find more places to detain our families. The push needs to be to reduce the use of detention overall.”

About 62% of the more than 34,000 beds that hold immigrants are operated by private prison corporations, according to the advocacy organization Grassroots Leadership.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has asked the subcommittee to submit their report on the use of private prisons by Nov. 30, but immigrant rights advocates are already expressing serious concerns about the impartiality of the group tasked to conduct the review.

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