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Big Stories of 2011 - #4 - ICE's "Detention Reforms" Benefit Private Prison Corporations

Over the next several days, Texas Prison Bid'ness will be highlighting the top five Texas private prison stories of 2011, and looking forward to the new year.   Our #4 story of the year is Immigration and Customs Enforcement's "detention reforms" and their benefit to private prison corporations.

Back in 2009, many immigration reform

advocates - including this author - were heartened when the Obama administration announced widespread reforms to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention system.  Those reforms were kicked off with the end of family detention at the T. Don Hutto detention center.  In fact, that change was our #1 story of 2009.

However, the promised broader reforms to the detention system - largely laid out in document called the Schriro report after its author Dora Schriro (who quickly left the agency) - have largely been a bust. 2011 was marked by record levels of detention and deportation.  The far-flung ICE detention now holds more than 33,000 immigrants on any given day.  Nearly half of those detention beds are operated by private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation.  These companies pour millions of dollars into federal lobbying and campaign contributions. 

That lobbying is apparently paying off.  This month, Congress increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s budget by more than $50 million from last year, including an allocation for 34,000 daily immigration detention beds, up from 33,400 last year.  Here in Texas, troubled private prison corporation GEO Group was awarded a contract to operate ICE’s first new “civil” detention center in Karnes County, Texas, despite opposition from immigration and civil rights advocates.  (Similarly, Corrections Corporation of America is trying to win a contract for a new "civil" facility in South Florida, and private prison company Community Education Centers was just featured in a report about the role of campaign donations in winning an ICE-contracted detention center in New Jersey.)

Problems in ICE-contracted detention centers continue to be prevelant.  In October, the ACLU of Texas filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of women immigrants seeking asylum from sexual abuse and violence who have suffered sexual assault at the hands of detention officers.  Also in October, Human Rights First documented the continued widespread use of jails to house immigration detainees in civil custody.  PBS's Frontline outlined horrific conditions of confinement in ICE detention centers in its program "Lost in Detention." 

Even some of the bright spots in the reforms have been bitter-sweet.  When ICE announced that it would be ending its contract with MTC's notorious "tent city" detention center in Raymondville (the facility highlighted in the Frontline episode), the facility was immediately repurposed as a Bureau of Prisons-contracted facility for immigrants.  Many of those immigrant prisoners in BOP custody are serving federal prison time for nothing more than re-entering the country after deportation under Operation Streamline.

Despite all this, 2011 saw some major resistance to for-profit immigration detention centers.  More on that later in the week as we continue our top stories of 2011.

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