Former immigrant detainees confronted the Secretary of Homeland Security about the private prison industry

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Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced his office would re-evaluate the use of privately run immigration detention centers. On Wednesday, a group of activists representing a coalition of immigrant rights groups—including former detainees themselves—confronted Johnson and insisted that the time for action is now.

"My son has spent over a year and three months in a privately run detention center in Georgia,” one activist, Cindy Barrientos, said. "I asked the Secretary to look into his case and free him because I want him home."


Barrientos is a member of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, an immigrant advocacy group whose protest over a recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama's deportation relief programs shut down traffic at a busy intersection in downtown Atlanta last June.

In video of the meeting with Johnson, Barrientos is seen tearfully describing her son's status in Spanish, as the Secretary politely asks whether he has a lawyer.


According to #Not1More, whose anti-deportation campaign was responsible for Wednesday's confrontation with Johnson, activists from the civil rights group Color of Change, as well as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration were on hand to deliver "200,000 petitions with the same demand"—immediate action to address the pain and suffering of those whose lives have been affected by the United States' immigration and deportation policies, which operate largely with the help of private prison companies.

A 2015 study from the Center for American Progress calculated that 18% of the 34,000 federally mandated beds in the U.S. immigration detention system are owned by for-profit companies across 7 different facilities. CAP also estimated the whole system detains roughly 400,000 people annually.

Interest in ending DHS' Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's use of for-profit prisons spiked in August, after the Department of Justice announced it would end its private prison program. The announcement didn't cover ICE detention centers, though, and ICE director Sarah Saldaña has implied to Congress that the agency has no plans to withdraw from the private prison industry any time soon.

In a statement put out along with video of Johnson's street-side meeting, Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson said:

The private prison industry is a moral stain on our country’s conscience. It’s a parasitic industry that lobbies for racist, ‘tough-on-crime’ policies that target Black communities to create more business. Last month, the Department of Justice finally came to terms with these realities and announced it will stop using private prison facilities. The Department of Homeland Security should take the same step, and it should do so ahead of its report in November.

It is an outrage that DHS is the single largest client of the private prison industry, which has a horrendous history of racism and abuse. While Black people make up 7 percent of the entire immigrant population, we account for 20 percent of immigrants who are deported or detained in these facilities. Inmates at privately managed detention centers also suffer regular abuse, though about 40 percent of sexual abuse allegations go unreported. It’s time that DHS stand up to the unconscionable practice of making money off of incarceration


This is not, in fact, Johnson's first such sidewalk interaction. In 2014, he was met by members of the LGBT rights group, Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project, as he exited an event at Washington DC's National Press Club. There, he acknowledge that a Transgender woman was being held in a men's holding cell at an immigrant detention center, saying simply "We are aware of this."

Earlier this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Sarah Saldaña seemed to throw cold water on the notion that ICE is on the verge of a wholesale rejection of privately run detention prisons, telling a U.S House Judiciary Committee meeting that "it would pretty much turn our system upside down."