Illegal border crossings are in decline, but Homeland Security officers nonetheless have a detention-bed quota they must meet. Private prison companies are reaping the benefits, and taxpayers are being shortchanged.
If that scenario sounds distorted, well, it is. Criminal justice systems around the country are turning to alternatives beyond incarceration to lower costs. But Congress is blocking such innovations when it comes to immigration.
The quotas were imposed in 2009, when Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, inserted language into the agency’s budget that called for 33,400 beds to be filled by detainees at any given time. Republicans have increased the quota to 34,000. In the Obama administration’s 2106 budget, the quota is raised by 40 more beds.
The bed quota forces Homeland Security to detain nonviolent people who are not a threat to the public. The policy is inflexible, expensive and sometimes inhumane.
And the share of private detention beds in the system has increased from 49 percent to 62 percent since the quotas were imposed. Two companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, have landed most of that business.
Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit social justice group, released a report Wednesday highlighting the plight of some detainees and the lobbying efforts of CCA and GEO Group, particularly with the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. CCA has spent nearly $10 million lobbying the panel since 2008. Both companies deny trying to influence immigration policy.
GEO Group operates the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which has been the subject of multiple hunger strikes and other protests aimed at alleged mistreatment of detainees.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has tried numerous times to amend Homeland Security budgets to end the quotas, but they’re caught up in the larger stalemate in Congress over immigration policy. He notes that it costs taxpayers $162 a day to place an immigrant in a detention center as they await a hearing. The bed quota discourages the use of lower cost detention methods, such as home monitoring.
The privatization of prisons in general has not gone well in the United States. A U.S. Justice Department survey has found that promised savings have not materialized. Idaho severed its contract with CCA after an Associated Press investigation found that its Boise-area facility had earned its “gladiator school” nickname. Lawsuits alleged that inmate-on-inmate violence was encouraged. CCA was also understaffing the prison in violation of state contract.
Ideally Congress would enact comprehensive immigration reform. Short of that, it should eliminate the quotas and put privatization on trial.