Biden vowed to reform immigration detention. Instead, private prisons benefited

By Ted Hesson, Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

PHILIPSBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) – As a presidential candidate in 2020, Joe Biden pledged to end for-profit immigration detention, saying: “No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence.”

The opportunity for action came early in the Democratic president’s term, in May 2021, when a group of senior immigration officials launched an internal review of detention centers to decide which should be scaled back, reformed or closed.

The review, which has not been previously reported, followed years of complaints from government watchdogs, detainees and advocates about poor medical care and sanitation, a lack of access to lawyers, sexual assault and detainee deaths.

Months later, the group shared findings with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, highlighting around two dozen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and recommending some be closed, according to five current and former officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal government deliberations.

Reuters could not confirm which centers were recommended to be shut down.

But, as illegal crossings reached record highs at the U.S.-Mexico border – putting pressure on Biden officials to keep detention space available – they only announced the closure of one facility in March 2022.

The stalled reform coincided with a boom in private prison revenues from ICE contracts during the Biden administration and an increase in the percentage of detainees being held in private facilities, according to an analysis of ICE data by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shared exclusively with Reuters.

Some officials argue private facilities can be better than local jails that contract with ICE. Companies say they provide crucial flexibility and adhere to ICE standards.

As Biden gears up to seek re-election in 2024 – and a possible rematch against his Republican predecessor Donald Trump – immigration remains a political flashpoint. Advocates and some Democrats have criticized Biden for not going far enough to reverse hardline Trump policies and adopting some restrictive measures. At the same time, Republicans have lambasted Biden as too lenient.

While the review sought to close or reform troubled centers, the White House and Mayorkas wanted to preserve detention beds and were concerned with backlash in counties that benefited economically from the detention centers, three of the officials said.

The Biden administration shuttered or reduced use of some of the most criticized lockups, but it seemed like “the barest minimum” compared to what was initially envisioned by the group that conducted the review, one of the officials said.

A White House spokesperson said Biden “continues to support moving away from the use of private detention facilities in the immigration detention system.”

ICE regularly reviews detention operations “to ensure non-citizens are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled,” a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said.

One facility evaluated as part of the Biden administration review was Stewart Detention Center, a Georgia lockup operated by the private prison company CoreCivic.

Eight Stewart detainees have died since 2017, the most of any center. A complaint filed in 2022 on behalf of four women alleged that they were sexually assaulted by a male nurse in the facility.

Ryan Gustin, a CoreCivic spokesperson, said the safety and well-being of detainees was the company’s “top priority” and that the employee in question was on administrative leave as ICE and Georgia authorities investigate.

The Biden administration also looked at, but declined to close, several centers that were part of a Trump-era expansion in Louisiana and Mississippi, two of the officials said.

The facilities included Winn Correctional Center, a Louisiana detention run by LaSalle Corrections. A government watchdog recommended in 2021 that Winn “be closed or drawn down until several critical health and safety concerns could be addressed.”

While the Biden administration said in 2022 it would limit the use of Winn, the center currently houses 1,100 detainees.

Richwood Correctional Center, also run by LaSalle in Louisiana, was called out in a government report this year for a lack of critical translation services.

Ruben Dario, an Argentine who was detained at Richwood for eight months in 2022, said he needed to serve as an ad-hoc translator for a Mexican man on the verge of a stroke because staff didn’t speak Spanish.

“If you don’t know what they are asking you, you won’t know how to answer, either,” he said.

Ryan Horvath, a spokesperson for LaSalle, said the company offered the federal government increased capacity and specialized services. Richwood had at least 14 Spanish-speaking employees last year and translation tools, he added.


ICE detainees include people who recently crossed the border, as well as those living in the country illegally, including asylum seekers. Many are fighting court cases to avoid deportation.

While the numbers of detainees dropped during the pandemic, in part due to lawsuits by rights groups, populations are rising again.

More than 90% of the roughly 31,000 people being held by ICE on average in July were in private facilities, up from 80% at the end of the Trump administration, according to the ACLU analysis.

Under Biden, private prison company GEO Group saw its revenues from ICE contracts for detention centers and remote monitoring of immigrants jump to a record $1.05 billion in 2022, up nearly 40% from the previous year, corporate filings show.

CoreCivic, GEO’s biggest competitor, also sustained high revenues from ICE during Biden’s term, according to corporate filings.

Under a new Biden asylum policy that went into effect on May 11, more migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border are being sent to detention centers for rapid asylum screenings. Nine centers are focused on the screenings, two officials said. All are privately run.

By mid-July, two months into the new policy, the number of people in ICE custody had jumped by 48% compared to the beginning of the year, according to ICE data.

The administration has scaled back immigration detention in some ways. During Biden’s first months in office, before the detention review formally began, ICE shuttered two much-criticized facilities. The agency also stopped family detention by early 2022 and significantly increased the number of people released with electronic monitoring while they await their immigration court hearings.

A White House spokesperson highlighted the use of detention alternatives and said they “could be making a lot more progress” if Congress would provide more funding and enact reforms.

GEO Group subsidiary BI Incorporated manages one of the monitoring programs and GEO’s chief operating officer told investors in February that the number of people under remote supervision peaked at more than 300,000 at one point last year. The monitoring program predominately drove GEO’s revenue growth from ICE, a company spokesperson said.

In April, GEO’s chief executive Jose Gordo told investors of “potential opportunities for upside” for the company, including “increases in populations at our ICE facilities.”

ICE often pays to maintain a fixed number of beds at detention centers regardless of whether they are actually used.

Adelanto ICE Processing Center, a GEO Group-run lockup in California, currently houses only 16 detainees due to a COVID-related court order despite paying to maintain a minimum of 640 beds in 2023.


In March 2021, following a Biden executive order to phase out the use of private prisons for federal detainees, a remote prison in central Pennsylvania run by GEO Group shut down. But just six months later, the company signed a contract to reopen the same complex as a 1,900-bed immigration detention center.

Angela Kelley, a senior adviser to Mayorkas at the time, said officials were aware that opening a new privately run detention center could appear hypocritical.

“It wasn’t as if people forgot about the fact that the president made this commitment,” said Kelley, who now works with an immigration lawyers association. “Once you’re in the chair making these decisions, executing on the promises is a lot different.”

Now called the Moshannon Valley Processing Center, razor wire has been removed from the fences and staff do not carry deadly weapons. Detainees are called “residents” and guards are “resident advisers.”

Other things, however, have stayed the same. Some 80% of prison staff transitioned to the detention center, a GEO Group supervisor said during a tour with Reuters. Visitors pass through secure checkpoints and detainees are not permitted to move freely. There are cells for solitary confinement.

Sunny Boy Sonkarlay, a Liberian immigrant, was detained at Moshannon for 14 months until he was released in July, according to his attorney and court documents.

The 28-year-old alleged guards slammed doors in his face and unfairly placed him in solitary confinement on several occasions, leading him to attempt suicide, an incident documented in his medical records and a civil rights complaint.

“I tried to hang myself because I just couldn’t take it,” he said.

GEO did not comment directly on Sonkarlay’s complaints but said it strives to treat everyone in their facilities “with dignity and respect.” It added it invested approximately $4 million to make improvements at Moshannon.

At a November 2021 county meeting to discuss the Moshannon transition to a detention center, one GEO employee talked about crying in her car when she heard the prison would close, saying “it was devastating” thinking about people losing their livelihoods.

Then Erika Guadalupe Nunez, executive director of a Philadelphia-based immigrant organization, stood up to speak.

“I have heard the opening of Moshannon Valley being described as something that will provide jobs for the community, and that is how it is being sold to you,” she said. “Your livelihood should not depend on the imprisonment of others. This community deserves better.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Philipsburg and Washington, Mica Rosenberg in New York, and Kristina Cooke; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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