As Dems Press for Divestment, Feds Strike New Contract for City’s Lone Private Jail

Via City Limits |Harry Diprinzio

The Queens Detention Facility at 182-22 150th Avenue in Jamaica.

Democrats in Congress have cited their concerns over a private detention facility in Queens as they push for the federal government to stop funding for-profit jails and prisons, especially those that might be used to hold immigration detainees.

But change looks unlikely in the short term at the Queens site, where City Limits has learned the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) recently inked a contract that could run as long as 10 years.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez and 15 other members of Congress—including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Adriano Espaillat and Georgia’s John Lewis—called last month for legislation to prohibit the transfer of alien detainees to privately operated facilities.

“We’ve heard numerous terrifying stories of private prisons allowing inhumane conditions to persist in their tireless pursuit of profit,” said Velázquez in a statment. “The federal government should not be complicit in allowing unscrupulous actors in the prison-industrial complex to profit by treating undocumented immigrants unfairly and inhumanely.”

In a letter to ranking representatives,Velazquez asked that language be included in 2020 spending bills to end the use of private facilities for the detention of immigrants and cited the USMS solicitation for a new contract at the Queens Detention Facility.

The feds’ procurement process has moved beyond solicitation. A notice posted late in March indicates that the GEO group has been awarded a contract to continue operating the Queens Detention Facility. It is valued at more than $186 million.

While the text of the new contract is not yet publicly available, the request for proposalsby the USMS suggests that a new contract is likely to be for an initial two-year period with four, two-year options to extend–meaning it could run for a decade. The RFP stipulated that the USMS as well as other federal agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Homeland Security could possibly house detainees in the facility.

The letter cited recent moves by public and private entities to divest from for-profit prison operators and said the federal government should follow suit. If enacted, the language would prevent the facility from detaining individuals in the custody of ICE. 

Local organizations working against immigrant detention echoed the call. “As the Trump administration escalates its efforts to terrorize immigrants, they rely heavily on these types of facilities, which should have no place in our state,” said Natalia Aristizabal, Co-Director of Organizing at Make the Road New York.

“Already, New York State and city pension funds have divested from private prisons because New Yorkers firmly oppose these morally bankrupt companies, which profit from our pain.”

The facility in question is the only privately run detention facility in New York City and is classified as medium/minimum security. It holds 220 detainees facing federal charges, many of whom are awaiting trial or transfer. According to a breakdown of detainees last May, there were 215 detainees in the facility, many facing charges related to drugs, violence or weapons. Forty-four were non-us citizens and 27 detainees were not facing charges but being held as material witnesses for cases.

Though information about conditions inside the facility is sparse, there are currently three pending lawsuits in New York State court against the GEO Group relating to treatment of detainees at this facility.

GEO Group is a publicly traded company and the world’s second-largest private detention facility operator.

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