Bernie Sanders’ impossible dream: Abolishing private prisons for immigrants

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As Sen. Bernie Sanders closes in on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 polls, he’s taking on another powerful foe: the private prison companies that detain thousands of immigrants every night.


“Overall, we need bold change in our criminal justice system. A good first step forward is to start treating prisoners as human beings, not profiting from their incarceration,” Sanders said in a statement announcing a comprehensive new criminal justice reform proposal.

Sanders said his legislation “will end the mandatory quota of immigrants detained,” referring to a bed mandate passed by Congress in 2009 that requires ICE to detain at least 34,000 people who are undocumented or seeking asylum each night. (Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has said he believes the mandate is not a requirement to house 34,000 immigrant but rather that ICE should have that number of beds available.)


Roughly 23,000 immigrants are also held each night in private prisons that are contracted out to private prison corporations by the Bureau of Prisons. Under Sanders’ proposal all these facilities would be closed.

Sanders is going up against some powerful private prison companies that have vested interest in keeping their contracts that detain immigrants each night. An estimated 62% of all immigration detention beds in the U.S. are operated by for-profit prison corporations, up from 49% in 2009, according to a report released earlier this year by Grassroots Leadership, a group whose mission it is to end for-profit incarceration.

Immigrant rights groups have little hope for Sanders’ proposal and call it a symbolic bill.

“Immigrants who are suffering in cruel detention centers need decisive action beyond symbolic bills. The best step any candidate can take is to urge the current President to enact the fixes now that they’re promising later," said Tania Unzueta, organizer for the #Not1More Campaign, an immigrant rights group.


Longstanding private prison contracts are difficult to dismantle. Closing private prisons, many of them in rural towns across the nation, would also devastate many of the communities that are now in debt and have become dependent on the income derived from incarcerating humans.

It may be easier for Sanders to change the laws that incarcerate immigrants than actually closing the privately run immigration facilities that detain them.


“It is clear to most Americans that we need major reforms in our broken criminal justice system,” Sanders said.

Two private prison corporations—Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group—dominate the immigration detention industry. GEO and CCA combined operate 72 percent of the privately contracted ICE immigrant detention beds, according to the Grassroots Leadership report.


The latest quarterly financial results from CCA show the publicly traded company made $49 million more in the second quarter of this year than it did in the second quarter of last year. According to the financial reports, the notable financial gains were “primarily attributable” to the company's South Texas Family Residential Center, which locks up children and their mothers.

The South Texas Family Residential Center generated approximately $65.9 million in revenue during the second quarter of 2015, according to a CCA press release. The company also noted earnings from additional inmates in Arizona and Colorado.


A GEO Group facility in Adelanto, California, made national headlines this summer when ICE announced it would begin to house transgender women with the female population. Under Sanders’ proposal this facility would close.

“We don't need symbolic bills being introduced by Bernie Sanders or anyone else,” said Jorge Gutiérrez, the national coordinator for Familia QTLM, an immigrant rights organization that works with LGBT immigrants.


“What we need is action now and President Obama can do that by ending the abuse and torture of transgender undocumented women in detention centers. The action that must be taken is clear, the current president can release all transgender women from detention centers,” said Gutiérrez.

Pablo Alvarado, the director of another immigrant rights group, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said it was meaningful to know where Sanders stands, but he too had little hope for the legislation.


“Americans need to know the specific policy proposals of every candidate for president on issues of mass incarceration. That's the very least they can do to engage the country in a dialogue about this new era of Jim Crow,” said Alvarado.

“Ending the immoral business of private prisons is a good step forward, but insufficient to abolish the mass warehousing of human beings,” Alvarado said.

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