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In its 2019 session, the California State Legislature banned the state from entering into contracts with for-profit prisons, including for immigrant detention. As a Quaker organization, FCNL applauds this initiative. Private business interests have no place in the justice system. For-profit corporations exacerbate the horrific effects of detention felt by millions of people and families.

While California’s initiative is an unprecedented victory at the state level, a larger federal approach must follow. Our country must stop putting corporate profits ahead of the wellbeing of immigrant people and families across the nation. Unless federal policies continue the work of the California State Legislature, we anticipate that the U.S. will simply transfer federal detainees from California to other states, continuing rather than ending this cycle of cruelty. California’s law comes amid new reports of abuses, human rights violations, and deaths of both adults and children. The mass expansion of detention centers has helped drive this violence, with for profit-corporations playing a key role.

The Problem

For-profit institutions are more likely to prioritize profit over an individual’s care, thus making accountability much harder. According to a report from The Guardian, incarcerated individuals were “nine times more likely to be placed on lockdown than inmates at other federal prisons.”

For-profit institutions are more likely to prioritize profit over an individual’s care, thus making accountability much harder.

Those held in private institutions were frequently subjected to arbitrary solitary confinement. In two of the three private institutions that were investigated, new inmates were placed into solitary confinement immediately without grounds for disciplinary action as a way of combating overcrowding. According to a report put out by the U.S. Department of Justice, privately-run prisons “had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”

Immigrant detention centers have also been at the center of violations with for-profit motives posing as a roadblock in finding solutions for real justice and safety. In fact, while private-prison corporations spent millions lobbying to promote detention in Congress (including donating millions to members of the committees responsible for immigration decisions), immigrant detention became lengthier.

As a result, immigrant detention beds have risen to 34,000 in 2016 to 55,00 daily beds in 2019. Private prisons have used their profits to influence the political process and exacerbate the problems of mass incarceration. Yet, immigrant detention isn’t the only issue that’s affected by private detention interests.

Though private prisons did not create mass incarceration, they profit from it and stand in the way of fixing the problem.

Of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., 8 percent are currently held in a privately-run facility. These numbers have steadily risen since the introduction of privately-run prisons to the immigration system and the U.S. criminal legal system. Since 2000, the number of people held in privately run prisons has increased by 47 percent.

And these private prisons are not more cost effective than their publicly run counterparts. According to a report by the Reason Foundation, the average cost per day of incarcerating a person in a private prison is $53.02 a day, compared to $48.42 per day in a publicly run institution.

Though private prisons did not create mass incarceration, they profit from it and stand in the way of fixing the problem. Over the last decade, true justice has been stalled by prioritizing for-profit motives of detention over real solutions to the immigration and justice system. The result has been family separation, deaths, and cruelty.

The Solution

Members of Congress have proposed several policies to address the serious lack of oversight and expansion of private detention centers. Legislation like the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would provide clear oversight and end mandatory detention while phasing out private detention centers. The New Way Forward, meanwhile, would amend overly punitive and arbitrary laws standing in the way of due process and mandating unnecessary detention.

Congress also needs to address the serious sentencing reform problems that lead to a culture of over-incarceration across the nation. The Next Step Act (H.R. 1893/ S. 687) would end mandatory minimums for low level drug offenders and eliminate the crack/powder cocaine disparity. This bill would also make incarceration more humane by ending the exorbitant fees that private companies charge for phone calls within incarceration institutions.

We must work to enact federal legislation that places justice, not profit, at the forefront of the U.S. criminal legal system. The law passed by California ending the use of private prisons should be the first step to a nationwide embrace of a just criminal justice and immigration policy.

Joe D'Antonio

Joe D'Antonio

Program Assistant, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity
Joe D’Antonio is the Program Assistant for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. His primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research.
Karla Molinar-Arvizo

Karla Molinar-Arvizo

Program Assistant, Immigration and Refugee Policy
Karla was the Program Assistant for Immigration and Refugee Policy. In her work, Karla tracked key legislation on congressional appropriations and funding, collaborated with partner organizations, and uplifted the values of FCNL through congressional visits and lobbying.

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