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The Feds Just Handed the Private Prison Industry a Big Score

Three months after the Department of Justice announced that it would phase out its use of private prisons, the Department of Homeland Security has gone in the opposite direction. In a report finalized on Thursday, a subcommittee of the DHS's advisory council recommended that Immigration and Customs Enforcement continue to use facilities run by private prison companies to detain undocumented immigrants.

The council, which was tasked with reviewing ICE's use of for-profit facilities, noted concerns about the agency's ability to oversee private detention centers as well as reports of substandard medical care in some private facilities. But it concluded that the already widespread use of privately run detention centers, combined with their lower cost made it unrealistic to seriously consider eliminating their use. ICE reports that it costs $144 per day to keep a detainee in a private detention centerwhile it costs $184 per detainee per day in ICE facilities.

"Much could be said for a fully government-owned and government-operated detention model, if one were starting a new detention system from scratch," the committee wrote. "But of course we are not starting anew." ICE will review the report and implement any appropriate changes, according to a department spokeswoman.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered the advisory council to undertake the two-month review in August, after the Justice Department declared that it would reduce or end its contracts with private prison companies. The DOJ announcement came on the heels of a Mother Jonesinvestigation into a troubled Louisiana prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the major private prison company that recently rebranded as CoreCivic. Private-prison stocks plunged following the announcement.

But the for-profit prison industry's slump now appears temporary. The election of Donald Trump caused private prison stocks to soar, and CoreCivic has continued to sign lucrative contracts with both ICE and the Department of Justice. If Trump follows through on his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, it would require ICE to significantly expand its detention capacity, likely by turning to private prison companies.

According to the DHS committee's new report, for-profit detention allows ICE to "respond to surges in migration flows" by expanding its detention capacity. "Capacity to handle such surges, when policymakers determine that detention will be part of the response, cannot reasonably be maintained solely through the use of facilities staffed and operated by federal officers," the report stated. Last month, Johnson announced he had authorized ICE to acquire new detention space following a roughly 25 percent increase in undocumented immigrant arrests between August and October.

But the deals this fall were moving so quickly that some ICE officials worried there would be no time to ensure that the new detention spaces conformed to certain quality requirements or regulations adopted as a result of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported. ICE is now pursuing a deal with CoreCivic to reopen the company's 1,129-bed Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico as an immigration detention center, even though the Bureau of Prisons shut down the prison this year following a series of inmate deaths and repeated citations for deficient medical care.

The DHS committee's report comes less than week after the death of a 36-year-old Guatemalan woman at the Eloy Detention Center, a CoreCivic immigrant detention facility in Arizona. Raquel Calderon de Hildago was arrested near Tucson by Border Patrol officers the day before Thanksgiving. She died on Sunday after having a series of seizures. Calderon was third person to die in ICE custody in the last two months and the 15th person since 2003 to die after being held at Eloy.

Marshall Fitz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and member of the DHS advisory council, disputed the council's main conclusion that ICE's continued use of private prison is inevitable. "The review undertaken by the subcommittee points directly toward the inferiority of the private prison model from the perspective of governance and conditions," he wrote in a footnote in the report. "Any shift away from such reliance would take years, carry significant costs, and require congressional partnership…but I disagree that these obstacles require our deference to the status quo."

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