On Immigration Detention, Private Prisons, and our Commitment to Justice

Protest of Children in Immigration Detention. Image courtesy of flickr user Takver




Last month, the Department of Justice announced it will sever ties with privately operated prisons (sometimes called “contract prisons”) following a startling report by its own Office of the Inspector General. The report found that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) institutions.”

Following this announcement, NWIRP is joining over 340 immigrant rights organizations and other advocates in calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to follow the example set by the DOJ and cease its use of private prisons to detain immigrants. Approximately three out of four immigrants detained by DHS are locked up in private immigration detention facilities like the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson recently announced a review of his agency’s widespread use of private contractors for immigration detention. However, we believe that, rather than spending months on this review, DHS should be taking bold action now to eliminate the use of private contractors for immigration detention and radically decrease the detention of immigrants, period.

Immigration detention, regardless of whether it is publicly or privately run, is inhumane. These facilities are not supposed to be punitive, but many of them are so poorly and unethically run they have been described by the New York Times as America’s “shame.” Immigrants who are locked up at detention centers like the NWDC include pregnant women, people with mental and physical illnesses, survivors of domestic violence, torture, and human trafficking, and other vulnerable groups. Many individuals at the NWDC are recent arrivals who have been transferred from the Southern border. In the last year, NWIRP has seen asylum seekers from 57 different countries at the Detention Center. Instead of being treated with dignity and respect, these community members are forced to wear jumpsuits and spend their days behind bars. DHS claims that detention is necessary to make sure people appear for their hearings but an analysis released today shows that the vast majority of immigrants do show up for their hearings if they are released.

At Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, as we continue to call for the end of immigration detention, we are helping to meet the needs of individuals and families detained at the NWDC in several ways.

Attorneys from all four of our offices provide direct legal representation to individuals in immigration detention, and we are also able to refer dozens of cases to volunteer attorneys. Our Tacoma office (located just minutes away from the detention center) provides legal orientation presentations, consultations, and representation to over 3,000 detained immigrants every year. And we are actively challenging unjust immigration detention laws and policies with systemic advocacy. Just today we filed another lawsuit challenging government practices that deny people the opportunity to seek release from NWDC on bond. And last year, we and partners won a landmark caseFranco v. Holder, which now requires the United States government to provide legal representation for detained immigrants with serious mental disabilities who are facing deportation in several Western states.

We strongly believe that immigrants should not be incarcerated at immigration detention centers. But as long as they continue to be subject to detention, we will continue to stand with them in their pursuit of safety, stability, and new opportunities.