January 10, 2020
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking to extend three new 10-year contracts for immigrant detention facilities in Texas. Based on a review of the Request for Proposals the three sites are the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, and the Houston Processing Center in Houston. The solicitations raise a number of questions. The first whether they are truly open bids - or if they are simply prima facie requests with the current holders of the contracts for these facilities basically locked in. The Quixote Center signed onto a letter in December coordinated by Grassroots Leadership in Texas demanding answers. The letter notes: “In some cases, ICE feigns competition by creating solicitations with requests so specific to its desired target(s) that no other interested party can meaningfully compete. This makes a sham of the federal procurement process. Understanding this pattern allowed us to identify the specific facilities the pre-solicitation notice was directed toward.”
Second, as also noted in the letter, there is the concern about the facilities themselves. In the case of T Don Hutto, Williamson County has already severed its ties with the facility in a bid to get it closed following repeated reports of sexual abuse. In response to the county vote, ICE simply extended a bridge contract directly with CoreCivic to keep the facility open until a new, long-term, contract could be negotiated. A ten year deal that side steps the county’s decision would be a real slap in the face to the community, not to mention a serious end-around local control and democratic practice.
Houston Processing Center is also operated by CoreCivic and holds the distinction of being the first private prison in the country. It was opened in 1984 by the Corrections Corporation of America (which became CoreCivic). This means the same company has had the contract for 35 years now, even though this facility has recorded among the highest numbers of deaths in custody since 2003.
South Texas Detention Complex, operated by the GEO Group, has its own track record of abuse, being among the “leaders” in the use of solitary confinement, which is a fundamental abuse of human rights. Of course, let’s face it, all of these examples are endemic in the system itself, which is dominated by private contractors (half of the people in ICE detention are either in a GeoGroup or CoreCivic facility).
Which raises a third question: Why is ICE using tax-payer resources to bail out private prison companies that have demonstrably bad track records? In the latest expose of the private prison industry, USA Today is publishing a series of reports on immigrant detention. The second report in the series details how the private prison industry has expanded under Trump, and the kinds of influence the industry attempts to gain through political contributions and lobbying. Since Trump took office, 24 facilities and 17,000 bed spaces have been added to ICE’s detention infrastructure. From USA Today:
The booming business spends $3 billion a year housing a record high of roughly 50,000 people, the majority of whom have no criminal record. The [USAToday] investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.
So, the conditions in the Texas facilities are, sadly, par for the course. In response to these conditions, and the growing awareness of them as Trump has expanded detention capacity, communities around the country have been pushing back. Some achievements include a recently passed ban on new contracts with private prisons to detain immigrants in California, restrictions against new contracts in Illinois, a series of local efforts, like the one in Williamson County, to cut Intergovernmental Service Agreements between ICE and counties, and significant push back against cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE, including denying ICE access to local jails for detention purposes. The movement has also led banks to cut off lending to private prison companies.
A significant impact of this movement is that ending (or restricting) contracts with private prison companies for immigrant detention is now a common position among Democrats running for president - Warren has staked out the clearest position of those remaining in the race. Such bans have also been featured in legislation, albeit bills not likely to move far in this Congress. Obama had already sought to end private contracting - a position which led private prison industry folks to embrace Trump’s campaign and donate a lot of money to it, including $250,000 from both CoreCivic and GeoGroup to Trump inaugural committee. It seemed to pay off. Trump’s administration overturned Obama’s executive order limiting new contracts with private prison companies within a month of taking office.
So, the companies ICE contracts with are facing significant local, state, and potentially national backlash over conditions in facilities. And Trump won’t be president forever. Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, was interviewed for the USA Today report, and said “This is their moment. They’re thinking, ‘We don’t know how long Trump is going to be in office, so let’s get all the money to him and to Republicans and solidify ourselves.’ ” The industry donated $38,000 to Obama’s election funds over his entire 8 years in office. They have already donated $969,000 to Trump in 3 years.
One result: ICE has their back. We saw this recently in California, where the new ban on contracts went into effect January 1, 2020. During the last two weeks of December 2019 ICE extended 5 new contracts for detention to private companies in the state, expanding, not reducing the footprint of private prison companies in the state. Not satisfied with the last minute save from the Trump administration, GeoGroup is now suing California to get the law overturned.
Which brings us back to Texas. The state government is still under the control of the GOP, and is not likely to pass anything like the bans in California or Illinois anytime soon. But it is also where the largest number of people are detained. So companies have every incentive to lock in contracts for as long as possible. There is also a widespread ecosystem of support for immigrants in the state. One that has grown up over many years. So, while the state government may not take action, counties have, e.g. Williamson County severed the contract with T. Don Hutto.
What can localities do to stop ICE from extending contracts? There are limited options, but one thing you can do is let your member of Congress know that you do not support the Trump administration locking in your community as a host for immigrant detention for the next ten years. Congress could block these contracts, or minimally demand that regular procurement rules are followed. The administration has no plan to pay for any of this - they are already over budget for detention. So, even fiscal conservatives should be angry.
Detention, as we say over and over, is also unnecessary. Community release is sufficient oversight for immigrants awaiting removal proceedings - which are the only reason people are in ICE detention to begin with. People show up for their court case - 98.7% of asylum seekers showed up to every court hearing last year. 98.7%. It is time to end this inhumane practice.