shutterstock_373634620Last year, I spent a week as a volunteer attorney with the CARA Project at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Although the government calls it a “residential center,” it is, of course, a prison that detains thousands of women and children who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. On my first day at the prison, I found many things jarring – the baby strollers lined up in a row, the infants crying in their mothers’ arms, the children playing in what is essentially a prison yard surrounded by a high metal fence. But what was perhaps most shocking to me was what is prominently displayed when you first walk through the front door: a whiteboard noting CCA’s closing stock price from the previous day.

CCA is the largest for-profit prison company in the United States. The prison at Dilley reminds all visitors in that first instant that incarcerating women and children here is a business that is traded on an international market: CCA profits substantially from detaining vulnerable asylum seekers, and lobbies Congress so that it can detain more families and make more money. It is a vicious and inhumane cycle.

This August, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced plans to end its use of private prisons.  After about 20 years of relying on private prisons, the DOJ, through the Bureau of Prisons, came to this decision after its inspector general investigated the private prison companies and found subpar detention standards and widespread abuses. One of the companies condemned in the report was none other than CCA.

After the DOJ made this announcement, advocates called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to follow suit. After all, DHS spends even more money on private prisons than the Bureau of Prisons, and DHS contracts with the same private prison companies that the DOJ inspector general found unacceptable. Certainly DHS has seen similar abuses with its heavy reliance on the for-profit prison model, including inadequate medical care, cost-cutting incentives and avoidance of transparency.

This month, the ACLU released a comprehensive report entitled, “Shutting Down the Profiteers: Why and How the Department of Homeland Security Should Stop Using Private Prisons.” The report describes the human cost of detaining immigrant families as well as the dangers of the close relationship between the private prison industry and DHS, and outlines a proposed plan for DHS to end its reliance on private prisons, resulting in a system that is more humane and transparent.

Over the past few weeks, however, far from decreasing its reliance on private prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has ramped up the detention of immigrants across the board, and is blowing past historic records. In fact, at the same time that DHS’s own Advisory Council is actively evaluating whether the agency should stop using private prisons, ICE just renewed the Dilley 2,400-bed contract with CCA for another five years.

It is well past time to abandon harmful detain-to-deter policies like these that haven’t worked and compromise our ability to protect vulnerable asylum seekers. Today, when far fewer individuals are trying to cross our borders than at any time since the 1970s, the data shows that refugees fleeing extreme violence in Central America now make up a much larger piece of this much smaller group of migrants. The administration’s policy responses have not reflected this reality.

In Dilley, I heard mothers attempting to comfort their terrified children. I spoke to women who, with tears in their eyes, told me about the unspeakable violence and harm they suffered in their home countries. These families have come to the U.S. to seek protection from our government, a government that should not respond to their pleas with detention in a private prison system that has been deemed unfit for the federal criminal justice system.  The detention of asylum seeking families is needless, and when DHS stops this harmful practice, it can also eliminate its use of private prisons.

Written by Eliana Nader, AILA Member and CARA Volunteer