On September 26, 2016, twelve U.S. senators urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to engage in a meaningful and transparent review of the current policy on privately contracted immigration detention centers. In a letter to DHS Secretary Johnson, senators Patrick Leahy, Richard Durbin, Patty Murray, Al Franken, Robert Menendez, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ron Wyden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Jeffrey Merkely, Bernard Sanders, and Mazie Hirono emphasized the need for increased oversight over immigration detention practices and detention conditions, and an overall end to the use of for-profit prison companies within immigration detention.
While they applauded the Department of Justice's (DOJ) request for the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) to review DHS detention policies, the senators reminded Secretary Johnson that meaningful review must come with an equally open mindset. In other words, they cautioned that a review with a "limited expectation of reform" would render any review meaningless and mere window dressing. Because ICE Director Sarah Saldana's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee came before the HSAC report on immigration detention, Saldana's words may influence the action that comes following the report, due to Saldana's characterization of detention reform as "turn[ing] our system upside down."
Our senators warn the DHS Secretary that notwithstanding these remarks, the review - and any subsequent action following the HSAC report - must be fair and genuine. As the senators make clear, Saldana's testimony "calls into question whether the HSAC review process will be a genuine, meaningful process, or whether the outcome is already predetermined." The senators' stance is unequivocal: "[w]hile ending private detention would fundamentally reshape the detention system, we believe that such a change is needed."
The letter urges that five steps be taken during the HSAC review:
1) halt all new and pending detention facility procurements, including RFIs, RFPs, solicitations, new contracts, long-term contract renewals, and expansions of existing contracts;
2) include in the review in the Department's contracts where other government entities have subcontracted to a private prison company;
3) include in the review the Department's contracts with publicly run facilities, such as state and locally managed prisons and jails;
4) provide Congress with specific information about the costs and conditions of confinement in these facilities and commit to providing that information to Congress in the future on a regular basis; and
5) commit to a HSAC review that is transparent and includes input from outside experts.
The senators explain that unlike federally-run facilities, immigration detention centers lack transparency in how they operate, and because of that, lack accountability to Congress and the public.
The critical issue, as the September 26, 2016 letter confirms, is America's commitment to humanitarian and fair detention conditions, and the much-needed accountability for the presently for-profit companies we charge with housing immigrants. We have a responsibility to know how much present detention policies cost us as Americans financially, as well as how they operate on a daily basis medically and holistically. We do not have an obligation to the prison industry, or to keep an antiquated system running. At the very least, if we are to continue to maintain an immigration detention system, it must be subject to federal oversight, be held accountable, be humane, and report to Congress.
I look forward to reviewing the HSAC subcommittee report, currently expected to be released on November 30, 2016.