States are pushing to shut down ICE-operated detention facilities

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It's not enough to just ban future contracts between the law enforcement agency and private prisons, experts say.

States across the country are taking action to end contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at their detention facilities. But even as immigrant advocacy groups acknowledge progress has been made, they're pushing for more.

In Maryland, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball directed the county detention center earlier in March to notify ICE of its intent to terminate its contract by the 26th of the month, the Baltimore Sun reported.

On March 18, the Maryland House also passed the Dignity Not Detention Act, which would end ICE's contracts with state detention centers in Frederick and Worcester counties. The bill is now headed to the state Senate.

In February, the Washington state House passed HB 1090 to ban for-profit private prison companies, which contract with ICE. The legislation awaits a vote in the state Senate.

Additionally, companion bills in New Jersey's Assembly and Senate, introduced in January, would prohibit the state's correctional facilities from entering into contracts with ICE. The legislation is currently awaiting committee debate.

Other states have taken similar actions in recent months. Last August, the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles, the only detention center in the state that detains immigrants, ended its contract with ICE. And states like Michigan and Colorado, while they've not yet cut ties with ICE in their detention system, are ending their relationship with the law enforcement agency by dropping information sharing and ending previous cooperation agreements.

Advocates have recognized the recent decisions as steps in the right direction.

"Folks have been fighting for this for years," Liz Alex, immigration nonprofit CASA's chief of organizing, told the Baltimore Sun following Howard County's announcement. "It’s just a testament to sustained, intense grassroots efforts that’s been around for years. It feels good that someone was finally listening to the people."

Still, many are calling for further action.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is urging the state senators in Washington to pass the private prison ban. The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which has contracted with ICE, is notably operated by the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison contractors in the nation.

GEO Group has a long history of alleged abuse and medical neglect at its many facilities and was cited in a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, which revealed it had been poisoning immigrants at its Adelanto facility in California for nearly a decade, by misusing a toxic pesticide and cleaning agent, HDQ Neutral. The center was ordered by a judge to halt its use of the pesticide in September 2020.

Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who objects to anyone in the immigration system being locked up, told Crosscut on March 2 that private detention is especially dangerous because it prioritizes money over people's rights.

"People are detained not based on whether they present a risk to that community, but on filling up that bed space," he said.

In New Jersey, a coalition of immigration groups released a joint statement on Thursday calling not only for future ICE contracts to be banned, but for all current contracts to be dropped.

"While we may appreciate the fact that the bill states there will be no additional ICE facilities in this state," they said, "...it is totally unacceptable for the current ICE facilities to remain open until their current contracts expire."

A large part of the advocates' push to end contracts stems from a history of abuse in ICE-contracted facilities.

At the Howard County Detention Center, a 2020 Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General report detailed multiple violations of ICE detention standards at the facility, including guards who excessively strip-searched immigrants.

And in New Jersey's Essex County Correctional Facility, a 2019 DHS Inspector General report found medical neglect, rotten food, decaying mattresses, and other violations.

In May 2020, immigration groups assisted detained immigrants in filing a class-action lawsuit against the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. The plaintiffs demanded detainees be released due to unsafe conditions, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

For-profit prison corporations such as GEO Group, which donated to Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, profited off his draconian immigration policies, which led to a spike in deportations.

CoreCivic, one of the biggest private prison companies in the United States, owns the Elizabeth Detention Center. The company contributed $250,000 to Trump's inauguration in 2017, according to OpenSecrets.

That contribution followed former President Barack Obama's directive to phase out private prison contracts with the federal government. Shortly after Trump took office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era policy.

CoreCivic earned $388 million in Justice Department contracts in the months that followed: Between 2016 and 2017 alone, the company saw a 935% increase in its federal contracts.

GEO Group, too, contributed $225,000 to a super PAC supporting the 2016 Trump campaign and $250,000 to his inauguration. In 2017, Trump awarded GEO with a federal contract that would generate $44 million in revenue per year, according to OpenSecrets.

According to Prison Legal News, GEO has held $471 million-worth of ICE contracts since 2017, making it the agency's largest vendor.

President Joe Biden attempting to confront the problem at the federal level. On Jan. 26, he signed an executive order to reinstate Obama's for-profit prison phase-out policy and cease Justice Department contracts with private prisons.

Since the order does not cancel existing contracts with ICE, advocates are mounting a larger push for Biden to end them.

"They have a lot of room here," Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News in January. "We think it is a historic opportunity to dismantle this system of massive incarceration."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.