Joe Biden’s criminal justice reform platform pledged to “end the federal government’s use of private prisons,” saying that if he were to be elected president, he would “make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.”
While he as president issued an executive order instructing the Justice Department to not renew private prison contracts, the order didn’t include private immigration facilities. Hundreds of organizations have now expressed further dismay upon news that the administration is set to reopen a currently closed private prison to detain immigrants, and convert a migrant family jail into a detention facility for adult asylum-seekers.
“The 220 undersigned organizations write to express our deepest disappointment regarding the planned reopening of Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, a former Bureau of Prisons (BOP) jail, as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center and the conversion and expansion of the Berks County ICE detention center to an adult facility for women,” organizations write to the president and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The letter said that while GEO Group said in January that BOP had declined to renew Moshannon’s contract, county commissioners last month approved the site’s reopening as an ICE facility under the private prison profiteer’s watch. Meanwhile, Berks County Residential Center stopped detaining families in March. While this was a huge victory, advocates said they would “remain on high alert,” worried that the site could again reopen for more detention in the future. They were right.
“Despite public opposition, Berks County Commissioners voted Thursday to house only female asylum seekers at the Berks County Residential Center,” LancasterOnline reported in August. It happened despite clear public opposition in the area. “Every single speaker and message in the public comment section of the commissioners’ meeting demonstrated opposition to the amendment and to the detention of immigrants in general, according to the report.”
“President Biden promised to end for-profit detention, including for undocumented immigrants, and to bring justice and fairness to the immigration system,” the 220 organizations continued. “Instead, your administration is increasing the use of immigration detention and filling the private prison beds that criminal justice advocates have worked for years to empty with immigrants and asylum-seekers. We expect and demand more.” The groups said they were “appalled” that Berks would continue to remain open, “despite the documented history of abuses against women detained there when it was a family detention center”—and abuses against children.
In just one example, officials held a 7-year-old girl and her dad there for 250 days, finally releasing them in March 2020. Philadelphia Inquirer had previously reported the girl had “become deeply depressed” while at Berks. But following the family’s release, she seemed more concerned about her dad than herself, Philadelphia Inquirer said. “’Daddy, why are you crying?’ the child asked as her father wept after the release.”
“When Moshannon Valley announced its closure at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions deteriorated: lack of access to calls, no visitations from family members or attorneys, two slices of bread with peanut butter per day and a sandwich for dinner, forcing up to 70 people in one pod, no commissary or hygiene products for months, ongoing threats of abuse, and solitary confinement for anyone who spoke out,” the groups continued in the letter. “Queer and trans immigrants formerly detained at Moshannon Valley expressed that they faced constant attacks by guards due to their gender identities.”
The advocates note the Biden administration took over a fight by the previous administration that sought to block California law banning private, for-profit prisons. Earlier this month, a court did just that. Additionally, the “[n]umber of immigrants detained by ICE has increased 70 percent under Biden,” Detention Watch Network Executive Director Silky Shah wrote for Truthout. The more humane option (and one that benefits public health as well) is for ICE to simply allow immigrants to pursue their cases from their homes and communities, which the agency has every ability to do.
“It is not too late to reverse course,” the organizations said. “We urge you to cancel ICE’s contracts for Moshannon Valley and Berks, halt all expansion efforts underway and place a moratorium on any new or extended ICE detention contracts. Furthermore, we request you meet with immigration advocates to discuss ways to meaningfully incorporate immigration detention into implementation of the executive order on privately operated prisons.”