Biden Admin Brett Wilkins criminal justice Immigration

Despite Promises of Reform, Private Prison Companies Still Thriving Under Biden: ACLU

"Three years into the Biden administration, the number of people held in ICE detention continues to grow, and private prison companies hold an increasingly tight grip on the mass immigration detention system."
President Biden signing the executive order named Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities (an executive order to eliminate the private crime facilities) (Wikimedia Commons)

By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams

The ACLU on Monday said that more than 90% of people held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in July were locked up in for-profit facilities, despite promises and an executive order from President Joe Biden to phase out federal private prison contracts for immigrant detention. 

“Three years into the Biden administration, the number of people held in ICE detention continues to grow, and private prison companies hold an increasingly tight grip on the mass immigration detention system,” ACLU National Prison Project senior staff attorney Eunice Cho wrote in an analysis.

“The federal government’s immigration detention system overwhelmingly relies on private prison corporations,” Cho added. “Private prison corporations, like the GEO Group, CoreCivic, LaSalle Corrections, and the Management Training Corporation have pocketed billions from ICE detention contracts in the past two decades.”

While campaigning for president in 2020, Biden declared that “the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.” Just days into his presidency in January 2021, he signed an executive order “on reforming our incarceration system to eliminate the use of privately operated criminal detention facilities,” a move cheered by progressives

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While the order applied to around 14,000 federal inmates incarcerated in private prisons at the time—or about 9% of the federal prison population and 0.6% of the approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails—it did not apply to ICE.

“Since then, the number of immigrants detained by ICE—and revenues for private prison companies—have only increased,” Cho noted. 

According to her report: 

As of July 2023, ICE detains on average 30,003 people each day. This is a significant increase from the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, when ICE held an average of 15,444 people in detention each day.

Under the Trump administration, 81% of people detained each day in January 2020 were held in facilities owned or operated by private prison corporations.

In the first two years of the Biden administration, this number remained relatively unchanged. In September 2021, 79% of people detained each day in ICE custody were held in private detention facilities.

In the last two years, however, this number has markedly increased: as of July 2023, 90.8%of people detained in ICE custody each day are held in detention facilities owned or operated by private prison corporations.

In 2022, GeoGroup raked in over $1 billion from ICE detention contracts, just under 44% of the company’s total annual revenue. Competitor CoreCivic made more than $552 million from ICE contracts last year, amounting to 30% of the firm’s yearly earnings. 

“Despite calls from advocates to decrease funding for ICE detention, Congress appropriated $2.9 billion dollars to hold 34,000 people in ICE detention each day for [fiscal year] 2023,” Cho noted. 

The Biden administration has “also kept open detention facilities that its own oversight agencies have recommended for closure in light of abusive conditions and safety risks,” Cho added, citing multiple migrant deaths at privately operated ICE lockups in New Mexico and Louisiana, as well as sexual abuse of detainees at a county jail in Florida.

A bipartisan U.S. Senate probe last year corroborated numerous allegations of abuse of jailed migrants by staff at detention facilities owned by LaSalle, a company that claims to be “run with family values.”

Last week, a pair of advocacy groups published a report detailing widespread human rights abuses of migrants and some U.S. citizens allegedly perpetrated by Department of Homeland Security personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years under both the Trump and Biden administrations.

“The Biden administration can reverse course on immigration detention,” Cho asserted. “It should dramatically reduce the number of people in ICE detention, invest in alternatives to detention, and stop allowing private prison companies from profiting by the billions of dollars each year off the suffering of immigrants in detention.”

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Brett Wilkins

Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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