At a Thursday morning press conference last week presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders revealed an ambitious plan to scale back the private prison industry. Sanders’ bill, the Justice is Not for Sale Act, would give federal, state and local governments two years to exit their contracts with private prison companies.
“We have got to end the private prison racket in America,” said Sanders.
The new bill draws heavily from a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington earlier this year — the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act — to address issues at the Northwest Detention Center. Located on the tide-flats in Tacoma, the 1,575 bed detention center has been the site of many protests and direct actions since it opened a decade ago. Congressman Smith toured the facility in 2014 after a group of detainees went on hunger strike for almost two months, drawing the attention of the media and elected officials.
Sanders’ bill would also do away with the controversial “bed-quota,” which requires that Immigration and Customs Enforcement keep 34,000 detention beds available at all times — and pay for those beds.
“Bed minimums have been a travesty to justice and to the immigrant population,” said Brent Wilkes, the League of United Latin American Citizens National Executive Director. Activists worry that since the government is paying for the beds, there’s an incentive to keep them occupied.
The number of immigrant detainees held in privately run detention centers has been increasing in recent years — last year 62 percent of ICE detainees were held in private facilities. That’s up from 49 percent in 2009, according to a report from Grassroots Leadership.
Sanders says if ICE could make better use of alternatives to detention — things like electronic home monitoring — the savings would be staggering: as much as $5 million a day; $1.4 billion per year. It costs an average of $159 to keep a detainee in custody each day.
Sanders isn’t just upset about the companies that run private prisons, either. He would like to see all “profit motives” taken out of the incarceration equation. Sanders says he plans to invoke the powers of the Federal Communications Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and require that the agencies put an end to the notoriously bloated prices associated with banking and phone calls behind bars.
“It is outrageous that a fifteen-minute phone call could cost upwards of $12, or that inmates are charged any number of service fees to access their own money upon release,” writes Sanders in a fact sheet accompanying the bill.
Speaking in support of Sanders’ bill, Congressman Smith spoke of the deplorable conditions at some detention centers and the need for more oversight.
“There’s no legislative standards for how these people are treated,” said Smith. “We need to set standards for the conditions in these facilities.”
Smith’s bill to reform immigration detention didn’t make it to a vote in the House last year. That may not bode well for Sander’s bill going forward in the Senate. The Christian Science Monitor reports that bipartisan support for prison reform is building steam, so there may yet be hope. But what about when it comes to immigration detention?
Sanders’ announcement came just hours after last Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, where aspiring-candidates proposed building one — possibly two — fences along the southern border and rounding up and kicking out the 11 million-or-so people who are in the country illegally. Sanders was live tweeting the debate but didn’t address the draconian immigration policy proposals.
“We’re tired of companies profiting from our community,” says National Hispanic Leadership Agenda Executive Director Hector Sanchez. “We are tired of being under attack from the prison business; we say no to more prison companies, end privatization of correction industry.”
The frustration with private prisons companies was evident Monday morning as a group of 30 activists from the Northwest Detention Center Resistance Coalition locked arms and blocked the streets leading to the Northwest Detention Center. Thirty more activists were onsite in solidarity with the direct action, which blocked access to the detention center from 5:30 a.m. — when buses typically leave to drive immigrant detainees who are being deported to the airport — until noon. No detainees were deported from the facility Monday.
“Demonstrators’ actions Monday impeded access to the Northwest Detention Center, prompting ICE to postpone several previously scheduled detainee appointments with outside healthcare specialists,” says ICE Spokeswoman Lori Haley. “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in its custody, and crucial to that mission is providing detainees with timely medical treatment.”
Pablo Paez, GEO Group’s Vice President of Corporate Relations, could not be reached for comment.
“It was a success and we are going to keep doing it until that place is shut down,” says Maru Mora-Villalpando, an activist who participated in Monday’s action and is undocumented herself. “We are excited about Congressman Smith and Senator Sanders’ efforts; finally the Congress-people are seeing what we have seen for a long time.”