Op-Ed: End profit-driven detention in the immigration system as well as federal prisons

Two feet with chains
Immigration reform protesters were arrested outside Broward Transitional Center in Florida in 2014. The Biden administration has negotiated to continue a private contract to run the center.
(J Pat Carter / Associated Press)

Joe Biden was on the right path as a presidential candidate when he said that “the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.” Corporate profit motive has no place in decisions about locking people up.

After taking office in January, he ordered the Department of Justice to phase out federal private prisons, banning the renewal of contracts operated for the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. However, progress has been spotty, with some contracts extended while federal agencies and local governments negotiate to keep jails privatized.

And notably, the executive order didn’t even attempt to address privately operated Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, which are under the Department of Homeland Security. Private prisons are responsible for less than 10% of the total U.S. prison and jail population, but they hold nearly 80% of people in immigration detention.


To detain migrants on such a scale is bad enough: There have been widespread human rights violations and scores of deaths in immigration detention centers. Handing over the system to profit-driven corporations aggravates the issue, as private prisons are known to shortchange immigrants on basic necessities and subject them to forced labor, among other violations.

Even worse, ICE is opening private detention facilities in recently shuttered federal private prisons. In September, ICE announced that it was reopening the former Bureau of Prisons private site in Moshannon Valley, Pa. Similarly, reports have emerged that local governments and private prison corporations are in talks to convert additional Justice Department private prisons to ICE detention centers in Tennessee and in Leavenworth, Kan., with little to no transparency.

Extensions have been negotiated for existing ICE contracts with private detention centers, including at GEO Group’s Broward Transitional Center in Florida and Management & Training Corp.’s Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico.

The Biden administration has also continued to intervene on behalf of the private prison corporations in litigation started against California’s AB 32, a law banning private detention in California.

In his first year, Biden has fallen far short of that campaign rhetoric about ending all private detention in federal systems.

But it is not too late to change course. The order governing Justice Department prisons should be strictly enforced. The Biden administration should also join states like California that are banning for-profit incarceration.


And on the immigration front, the government needs to rethink detention altogether, not just privately run centers.

Advocates and those directly affected by the system have been clear: Detention puts people’s lives and well-being at great risk, exacerbates humanitarian crises, violates principles of human rights, and is cruel and unnecessary.

The criminalization of migration and the incarceration of migrants must end. Biden should phase out the use of detention in the immigration system and extend the executive order to prevent new and extended contracts for immigration detention centers as well as Justice Department prisons.

Instead of detaining individuals as they await decisions about their immigration status, the federal government should implement community-based programs that have been found to be far more humane and less expensive.

Candidate Joe Biden seemed to recognize that it’s deeply wrong to profit from mass incarceration. President Biden should take action.

Bob Libal, a criminal legal reform and immigrant rights advocate in Austin, Texas, is co-author of the report “Broken Promises: Limits of Biden’s Executive Order on Private Prisons.” Azadeh Shahshahani is the legal and advocacy director at Project South.