In Stunning Reversal, Law Enforcement, Military, and Security Advisors Urge Homeland Security to Shift Away from Private Prisons

In a surprise development, the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), an expert panel of law enforcement, national security, military, and other experts who advise the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security voted on Thursday to recommend that the agency shift away from using private prisons to detain immigrants.

Under public pressure, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in August had convened a special subcommittee of the HSAC to evaluate whether the agency should continue to use for-profit prisons.

The subcommittee’s report, released Thursday, presented much evidence showing that private prisons are generally inferior, in both accountability and conditions of confinement, to federally run facilities. “Much could be said for a fully government-owned and government-operated detention model, if one were starting a new detention system from scratch,” the report said.

Oddly, however, the subcommittee’s report failed to draw the logical conclusion from the evidence — to recommend shifting away from private prisons — and most subcommittee members seemed resigned to their continued use. “Fiscal considerations, combined with the need for realistic capacity to handle sudden increases in detention, indicate that DHS’s use of private for-profit detention will continue,” the majority wrote. One dissenting member argued that DHS should make “a measured but deliberate shift away from the private prison model.”

On Thursday, when the subcommittee presented its report to the full 24-member council for a vote, observers expected it to be approved. Instead, however, the HSAC voted, by a 17-to-5 majority, to associate itself with the dissent and to recommend that DHS shift away from the private prison model.

Secretary Johnson was present for the entire HSAC meeting and witnessed the contentious debate that preceded the vote.  The final vote breakdown makes it undeniably clear that three-quarters of the agency’s non-partisan expert council — which includes former high-level DHS officials, police chiefs, retired generals, and executives at defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin — think it is unacceptable for the current immigration detention system to continue as is. This expert council believes that DHS should shift away from using private prisons.

In light of the HSAC recommendations, Secretary Johnson can and should take the following measures before he leaves office in January:

First, DHS should immediately stop using the for-profit detention facilities with the most notorious records of sexual abuse, detainee deaths, and denial of medical care.  These facilities include the South Texas Detention Complex, Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego, Eloy Detention Facility in Arizona, and Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. Advocates have pressed DHS to cancel its contracts at the first four for years because of their long, grisly records of abuse and neglect. And DHS never should have begun the Cibola County contract in the first place — the agency entered into this contract just two months ago, in the middle of the HSAC review, shortly after the Justice Department shut Cibola down after a horrifying pattern of deaths and persistent medical neglect.

Second, DHS should immediately break ties with the for-profit family detention facilities in the Texas cities of Dilley and Karnes that lock up Central American children and mothers fleeing persecution.

Finally, in order to facilitate a broader shift away from private prisons, DHS should expand community-based alternatives to detention, provide bond hearings to detainees locked up for six months, halt the detention of asylum seekers, and stop imposing exorbitant and unaffordable bonds. These detention reforms could reduce the detainee population by tens of thousands of people and save hundreds of millions of dollars that would no longer go into the coffers of private prison companies.

The ACLU recommended these solutions in our policy paper, “Shutting Down the Profiteers: Why and How the Department of Homeland Security Should Stop Using Private Prisons,” which we submitted to the committee and made public in early October. The paper explained how more immigrants are needlessly getting locked up than ever before, including asylum seekers, families, people too poor to afford exorbitant bond amounts, and people held for months or years without bond hearings. In just the past year, the numbers of detainees has shot up to a daily average of 45,000, from an average of fewer than 30,000 in 2015, and about 73 percent of immigration detainees are now being held in privately run facilities.

Now that Secretary Johnson has received the recommendations of his full council, he should move swiftly to enact reforms that reduce his agency’s dependence on private prisons. Too many people are being handed over to the custody of prison profiteers for no good reason — and Johnson must act now.

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Tom Hunt

You were pulling me along until you reached conclusions about closing facilities based upon the reasons people were detained or their demographics. Closing facilities due to abusive practices should be done regardless of private/public administration. Likewise, policies about whom to detain or for what reasons should have no bearing on the private/public administration issue. What does have prima facia bearing are factors of cost, institutional motive, and effectiveness. Private administration is best employed with low security risks to meet short term capacity gaps, for interim residency, or for short duration stays. Public administration is best for high security risks or rehabilitation, long term/indefinite durations, and predictable sustained special needs groups. The current federal system is out of balance against these measures and lacks appropriate mid and long term guidance about what balance they need to achieve.

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What this country needs are prison work farms where the inmates work 12 hours per day with limited electronic and social media. There will be no gyms since they will be too tited to work after a 12 hour shift. Prison should be a place no one wants to return and those who preace a religion of hate will be placed in solitary confinement for 10 years Recidivism will be greatly reduced since these farms will be self sufficient due to incarcerrated labor 247. For all you bleeding heart liberals this means criminals will be treated brutally to make them understand they must obey the law.

Alex Aldrich

Why do you post anonymously? I think giving inmates work and exercise in the fresh air for 12 hours a day so they can utterly tire out their minds and bodies and sleep soundly would actually be more humane, notwithstanding the aches and blisters, than confining them in extremely overcrowded interiors with nothing to do, mind-numbing routine, and no access to medical care when they inevitably get sick in what is essentially a petri dish for viruses and bacteria.


Brave of you to advocate for brutal conditions under an anonymous name. Before you start recommending 10 years of solitary confinement, you should really do some research into the effects that extended solitary has on the human mind. There are solid arguments to be made for solitary to be classified as cruel and unusual punishment, as chances are that anyone subjected to solitary for a full decade would be psychotic and in no way fit for release back into the general population. You might also want to do some research into countries with a low recidivism rate (Norway, for example) vs those with a high recidivism rate (like the U.S.). The thing that countries with a low recidivism rate have in common is treating their inmates humanely and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Those with a high recidivism rate tend to focus on punishment over treatment. You can have all the moral outrage in the world, and instinctively feel like punishment is the most effective way to discourage criminality, but the objective data simply does not support that idea. Recommending an effective approach to imprisonment and rehabilitation has nothing to do with "bleeding hearts" and everything to do with coming up with a system that actually works the way we need it to.


I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I am a gun carrying NRA member, with an education from a four-year college and the ability to spell and use the English language correctly. I currently work at three jobs. I think privatized prisons generally are mismanaged and dangerous, and no prison should be a detainment center for innocent civilians, much less a sweat shop run by bigots and failed public correctional employees.

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