Several members of Congress led by Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ) sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson urging the department to phase out the use of private prisons in favor of government-run facilities.
The letter arrives on the heels of Johnson’s August announcement revealing plans to consider moving away from privatized immigration detention operations due to budget, safety, and security concerns.
Payne, Jr. was joined on the letter by Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), José Serrano (D-NY), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), James McGovern (D-MA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Ted Lieu (D-CA), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
“We write today to commend DHS for following the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) lead in reassessing its contracts with private prison operators and to ask that if your conclusions mirror DOJ’s, then DHS should cease contracting with private prison operators,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subdivision of DOJ, began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to alleviate crowding. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population grew faster than prisons could accommodate, according to a memo by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.
As of 2013, 15 percent of BOP’s prison population—approximately 30,000 inmates—were housed in private prisons. Since 2013, there has been a decline in the prison population, which has led DOJ to consider reducing or declining to renew its contracts with private prisons.
“While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities,” Yates stated in the memo.
The letter noted that immigration detention centers have also seen enormous growth over the past 20 years. Furthermore, the use of private prisons for immigrants has surpassed the use of private prisons for state and federal prisoners.
“Sixty-two percent of DHS’s immigration detention beds are in privately operated facilities. By comparison, only 8.4 percent of federal and state prisoners were incarcerated in private prisons as of 2014,” the letter stated.
The lawmakers said private prisons experience more safety and security issues than government-run facilities. According to the letter, the New York Times reported this summer that a private immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona experienced a measles outbreak. In this same facility, 14 detainees died between October 2003 and May 2015.
Johnson has directed the Homeland Security Advisory Council to review DHS’s current policies and practices concerning the use of private immigration detention and to submit a report of its evaluation no later than November 30.