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|12/2: DHS panel raises concerns about privately-run detention centers
Released 16 December 2016  By Kevin Johnson - USA TODAY
DHS panel raises concerns about privately-run detention centers
Kevin Johnson - USA TODAY
December 2, 2016
WASHINGTON — An influential Department of Homeland Security advisory panel, wary about the controversial use of privately run immigration detention centers, recommended Thursday that reliance on the practice, while immediately necessary, should not represent a permanent solution.
In an usually contentious public session, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, rejected a core finding in a 23-page panel report, concluding that the agency would continue to depend on private contractors for the foreseeable future because of a lack of capacity in government-run facilities and the cost associated with building and managing new ones.
Instead, members adopted a dissenting version of the report, suggesting that fiscal concerns and enforcement policy should not "require our deference to the status quo.''
DHS, through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm, holds 65% percent of its more than 400,000 immigration detainees each year in private facilities. Among the detainees are those awaiting deportation, suspects in criminal investigations and immigrants pursuing legal status in the U.S.
The panel's findings are not binding on DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, who ordered the review in August, just weeks after the Justice Department cited security and efficiency concerns when it announced it was ending its use of privately run prisons, which became necessary when prison populations surged by nearly 800% between 1980 and 2013.
Justice's use peaked three years ago, when nearly 30,000 of the 220,000 inmates in custody were being held in private facilities. With inmate numbers now declining, due to changes in federal sentencing policies largely directed at non-violent drug offenders, officials project that less than 14,200 inmates would be held in contract prisons next spring.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in an August memo that private facilities 'simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources.''
"They do not safe substantially on costs, and as noted in a recent report by (Justice's) inspector general they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.''
Johnson declined to comment on the advisory panel's action following Thursday's session, and it is not clear whether the panel's findings will have any lasting influence with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has variously promised an aggressive deportation program to go along with the construction of wall along the vast southwest border.
The advisory panel's initial conclusion, citing agency's inevitable reliance on private contractors, was met with strong opposition by immigration advocates They expressed deep concerns about the facilities' capacity to house detainees safely and provide necessary medical care.
Joanne Lin, the ACLU's legislative counsel on immigration, said the panel's initial draft report suggested federal detention system that would be "wholly outsourced'' to private prisons.
"Our assessment is that (government-run) facilities are superior in condition, oversight and control,'' Lin said, claiming that government detention centers also had better records on thwarting incidents of sexual assault and in-custody deaths.
Elizabeth Holtzman, a Democratic former New York congresswoman and member of the DHS panel, said she was concerns by the report's suggestion that there were no other options beyond a continuing dependence on private prisons.
"Are they're alternatives to detention? What would they look like? I'm very concerned about the conclusion...that there are is no alternative,'' Holtzman said.
There was near-unanimous support, however, for the report's recommendation for a schedule of more extensive inspections and oversight of detention centers.
"Congress should provide to ICE the additional monetary and personnel resources to needed to provide for a more robust, effective and coordinated inspection regime,'' the report recommended.
Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CoreCivic, a major private detention contractor formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, said the company has for 30 years provided "innovative, dependable solutions.''
"We are one tool available to the agency to help achieve its mission in a cost-effective way,'' Burns said. "As always, we stand ready to support the needs of our government partner, while providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care.''
Pablo Paez, spokesman for private detention firm GEO Group, said the "facts support the continued use of privately-contracted facilities.''
"The dissents are completely unfounded and ignore GEO’s long history of providing culturally responsive, safe, and humane environments that meet the non-penal needs of those individuals entrusted to the care of ICE," Paez said.
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