Report on immigration detention centers raises questions of ‘perverse financial incentive’

The federal government detained an average of 35,929 people per day in immigration detention centers during the 2017 fiscal year.

FILE - In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File
FILE - In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File

An analysis of the nation’s 201 immigration detention facilities contracted through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is raising concerns about inadequate standards, contracting practices, and limited accountability. Two nonprofit advocacy groups obtained a spreadsheet of these facilities as part of a four-year long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the agency.

A spreadsheet analysis by the nonprofits Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights found that an average of 35,929 people per day were detained in immigration detention centers nationwide during the 2017 fiscal year through July 10, a number that does not include family detention centers or women detained at Hutto, an all-women detention center in Texas. Of that total number, 73 percent (or 26,240 people) were held in facilities contracted to private prison operators, the documents show.

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The two major private prison operators are GEO Group and CoreCivic, which charge the federal government a per diem rate anywhere between $30 per bed to detain immigrants for a short-stay facility to $168.64 per day, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse data from 2016.

Experts from the two nonprofits said that the acquisition of the spreadsheet itself was also a years-long hurdle that involved litigation with various federal agencies and private prison companies.

“The information we’re discussing today in the ICE facilities spreadsheet — we have as a result of almost four years of litigation against the government, especially DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] and ICE, as well as litigation against the GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),” Ghita Schwarz, the Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney, said on a press call Wednesday.

The experts said that the findings suggest an “irresponsible” ICE agency, which requested increased congressional funding this year in part on claims of a cost increase in detainees’ chronic health care needs, while at the same time, lowering levels of detention standards. Advocates previously alleged that lowered detention standards contributed to repeated violations of ICE’s own standards of care. That meant detainees routinely received unsanitary food and substandard health and mental care.

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What’s more, the spreadsheet outlined 159 out of the 201 detention centers that do not have a contract expiration date, drawing attention to the process of renewing a contract that would require facilities to undergo reviews that address chronic problems at facilities. Already, 12 immigrant detainees have died after being held in immigrant detention facilities during the 2017 fiscal year. At the GEO-operated Adelanto detention center, three detainees died — one of suicide, another of multiple medical conditions, and a third of internal bleeding — so far this fiscal year. Adelanto’s current contract expires in 2021, according to the documents.

Findings from the spreadsheet also suggest detention facilities are increasingly cropping up in localities that have a “perverse financial incentive” to participate in two federal programs that solicit local law enforcement to detain immigrants. One of these programs include the 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement authorities to detain suspected undocumented immigrants for deportation proceedings. The other program, known as the Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA), allows ICE to contract with and pay local governments or jails to detain immigrants at a per diem rate. In total, 32 detention facilities are in localities that have signed a 287(g) agreement with ICE. Four more detention centers are in places with pending 287(g) applications. There are currently 54 IGSAs, of which 13 also have a 287(g) agreement.

“It’s a stunning increase in the combination of these two programs,” Mary Small, Detention Watch Network policy director, said on the press call Wednesday, pointing out that the 287(g) program gives local law enforcement control over who will enter detention centers, while allowing counties to profit in the back-end. “We’re concerned about this because of the perverse financial incentive.”

The spreadsheet analysis comes as dozens of police departments across the country have entered into 287(g) agreements with the government. Many law enforcement officials welcome the detention and deportation of any undocumented immigrant, but advocates also believe that deputizing local law enforcement authorities could jeopardize the trust with immigrant communities.