The Department of Homeland Security announced late last month that it is considering ending its use of private prisons, as the Justice Department has decided to do. The Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, told his department’s advisory council to study the issue and report back to him by the end of November.
That gives him only a few weeks to read, review and act before everything gets bumped to the Trump or Clinton administration. To save time, Mr. Johnson could do the wise thing and end the contracts now.
There is no need to further study the failings of the private prison industry. Mr. Johnson only has to read the Justice Department inspector general’s report in August about the prevalence of safety and security problems at private prisons, or a recent Mother Jones article that looks inside a brutal, mismanaged Louisiana prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, one of two companies that dominate the immigrant-prison business.
Whether private prison contracts should be canceled or simply not renewed, or whether Homeland Security should contract with state or county lockups, or run its own, will need to be answered. But the administration should first be asking itself why it locks up so many immigrants who are not safety threats, who are not there to be punished, who in many cases are refugees and who are the mothers of young children or are young children.
The Obama administration has spent years endorsing and enacting smart criminal-justice reforms, including pushing back against decades of useless, degrading imprisonment of nonviolent and petty offenders. But there is one huge area where it seems immune to enlightenment: immigration enforcement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, takes about 300,000 immigrants a year into detention; the daily population averaged about 28,000 in fiscal 2015. About 63 percent of detainees are held in private prisons under contract with Homeland Security.
The administration’s deportations have ebbed in recent years, as illegal border crossings have slowed, and President Obama has used broad executive action to defer the deportations of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who are the lowest enforcement priorities. He tried to expand the program to millions more, a worthy effort that was stalled by federal courts. But despite his claims of going after “felons, not families,” the machinery he controls still catches too many of the wrong people.
Consider two situations. Xochitl Hernandez, a 40-year-old grandmother in Los Angeles, was arrested in an anti-gang operation by the Los Angeles Police Department and ICE. She has one misdemeanor shoplifting conviction, from 2004, but has no gang record, was not in a police gang database and was not a target of the operation. She was first held on $60,000 bond, which an immigration judge lowered to $5,000. Advocates are trying to raise the money to get her out. She isn’t a threat to the homeland.
Then there is Berks County Residential Center, in Pennsylvania, where detainees include 22 women, recent arrivals from Central America, who went on a hunger strike in August to protest their detention. Some have been detained for months, some for a year, and all are baffled and desolate.
Mr. Johnson recently defended the practice of detaining families as necessary to screen for health problems and security risks. But the administration has no answer for why it lacks a more robust set of alternatives to detention, like monitoring in the community by local organizations that would ensure people return to court for their deportation or asylum cases. More lawyers and more judicious enforcement are the answers.
There are ways to enforce the law without mistreating a population that fits no definition of a criminal threat. The job of dismantling the prison network Mr. Obama built will pass on to Hillary Clinton, if she is elected. If it’s Donald Trump, who wants to make immigration enforcement the federal government’s overriding priority, then private incarceration, industry profits and human suffering will go through the roof.