TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Federal immigration officials said Monday they are considering phasing out the use of private contractors at its detention facilities amid pressure from immigrant advocates to end the practice over safety concerns.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he has asked an advisory council to review whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under the DHS umbrella, should make the change.
He said the decision came after the Department of Justice announced on Aug. 18 that it was phasing out the use of some private prisons, citing an audit that found such facilities have more safety and security problems than government-run ones.
Forty-six of the roughly 180 facilities in which ICE holds immigrants are privately run, according to ICE. About 73 percent of detainees held by the agency are in privately operated facilities.
Immigrant advocates say some ICE detention centers are unsafe and they have been pushing the government to abandon its private contracts.
Carl Takei, an attorney with the ACLU, said DHS shouldn't need a review to end its relationship with private contractors. The ACLU and other advocacy groups published a report earlier this year that found ICE provided inadequate medical care at its detention facilities, leading to in-custody deaths.
"The majority of those deaths occurred in facilities run by private companies," Takei said.
In Arizona, activists have been critical of the Eloy Detention Center over its conditions, which they say have led to the deaths of 14 people since 2004. The center has had the most reported deaths of any ICE facility in the country, advocates say.
"I think its record is particularly horrifying on suicides," Takei said.
Activists staged a protest outside ICE offices in Phoenix last week demanding that the agency sever ties with private contractors. The Eloy Detention Facility is operated by CCA, also known as Corrections Corporation of America.
CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company welcomes the planned review of its contract.
Carlos Garcia of Puente Movement said the organization welcomes the review, but it is long overdue. Garcia cited the numerous deaths and a recent massive measles outbreak at the Eloy Detention Center as examples of shortfalls.
"It's people's lives we're talking about that are in these detention centers," Garcia said.
ICE says all of the facilities that hold its detainees are thoroughly inspected to ensure that people are in a safe environment.
"ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement," spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a written statement.
The agency says that its detention centers are different from federal prisons in that they are not punitive in nature and are meant to be short-term.
"ICE's civil detention system reduces transfers, maximizes access to counsel and visitation, promotes recreation, improves conditions of confinement and ensures quality medical, mental health and dental care," Kice said.
The advisory council has until the end of November to make a recommendation.