ACLU Statement on Government Accountability Office Report

New Government Report Shines Light on Failings of ICE Detention System

February 16, 2021 3:15 pm

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WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report this past weekend, shining new light on the growth of immigration detention under the Trump administration. Key findings of the GAO report included:

  • ICE opened detention centers in prisons that had been shut down by other federal agencies, over objections of ICE’s own staff. For example, “[i]n [one ICE] field office, officials said they strongly disagreed with adding a facility that had previously been under a Bureau of Prisons contract because of that facility’s history of chronic understaffing in correctional and health services. The Department of Justice Office of Inspector General concluded that these staffing shortages had contributed to a 2012 riot that resulted in the death of a corrections officer and injuries to approximately 20 inmates and staff.”
  • ICE improperly opened facilities. “From fiscal year 2017 through May 11, 2020, ICE entered into 40 contracts and agreements for new detention space. GAO’s review of ICE’s documentation found that 28 of 40 of these contracts and agreements did not have documentation from ICE field offices showing a need for the space, outreach to local officials, or the basis for ICE’s decisions to enter into them, as required by ICE’s process.”
  • ICE failed in its oversight of detention facilities, allowing abuses without accountability. The GAO found that ICE failed to properly track and provide sufficient oversight of detention facilities’ failures to ensure safe conditions, including instances of negligent death and use of force.
  • Lack of transparency and wasted tax-payer dollars. “ICE spent $20.5 million in May 2020 for over 12,000 unused beds a day, on average.”

“The report underscores what advocates and lawyers have been saying for years: The immigration detention system is a failure, and addressing it must be an urgent priority for this administration,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney, ACLU National Prison Project. “In the last fiscal year, there have been more deaths in custody than in 15 years, despite lower detention numbers than we’ve had in decades. Reports of physical and sexual abuse, rampant solitary confinement, paltry COVID-19 protections, and forced sterilization are on the rise. The Biden administration has inherited a shameful system, but it also has an opportunity to make a lasting impact by closing facilities — it is urgent and will be easier to do now than it has been for years.

“President Biden must end this immigration detention machine. The administration can immediately uphold its commitment to end its immigration detention contracts with private prison corporations. It can quickly close dozens of facilities that ICE opened without authorization and shut down facilities with egregious records of abuse as important first steps to rebuild a humane and just immigration system. We must end this nightmare of abuse and profiteering at the expense of immigrants.”

The GAO report highlights the fact that ICE detained approximately 48,500 people per day in Fiscal Year 2019. In Fiscal Year 2020, the agency spent $3.14 billion on immigrant detention.

The report underscored findings that the American Civil Liberties Union previously revealed in a joint report, which found that detention facilities opened under Trump were almost exclusively owned and/or operated by private prison companies and were overwhelmingly characterized by abominable conditions and located in rural locations without access to legal services or advocates.

The GAO report is online, here.

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