Illinois currently has a law against privately run state prisons or county jails. Senate Bill 1064, which passed the Senate by a vote of 34-17 on March 28, would attempt to expand the ban to federal prisons and detention centers. Though state laws generally don’t inhibit the federal government from doing as it pleases, the bill would ban units of government in Illinois from contracting with private companies to house federal prisoners. The Senate’s vote was split largely along partisan lines, with most Democrats voting for it and Republicans voting against it.
Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), testified in favor of widening the ban before a Senate committee on March 27, saying the proposed facility raises questions about human rights abuses, costs to the state and more.
Tsao says the Corrections Corporation of America, selected by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to run the proposed prison, has a “checkered past” of assaults on inmates and detainees dying from lack of medical care. The proposal would also allow ICE to avoid hiring union workers by contracting the project to a private company.
“While we do want humane treatment for people who are being detained, we also question why so many people have to be detained,” Tsao said. “Why not just release them? If you want an additional level of security, you can set up home electronic monitoring. These people have ties to the community; they have families and homes – they’re not going to flee.”
Tsao acknowledges the project could go ahead without an agreement between Crete and CCA.
“In theory they could (move forward), but that’s not the approach ICE has been taking,” Tsao said, adding that in some other states, ICE has brokered agreements with park districts or zoning boards. “If you get local governmental buy-in, then the powers that be in that community are bought into the project and better able to tamp down any local resistance.”
Michael Einhorn, village president of Crete, said the bill might actually end up hurting his community. The detention center could still be built even if Crete is prohibited from entering into an agreement with CCA to secure economic benefits like a payment to the town for each prisoner, Einhorn says.
“ICE could potentially decide to do it anyway and leave Crete out of the mix,” he said. “We would wind up not being the benefactors of potential revenue we would have gotten in the first scenario, but we’d still have the prisoners here. For all the work, (ICIRR) may end up harming us in the process.”
The current ban on private prisons in Illinois dates to 1990, and it originally only covered state prisons. In 2011, the ban was expanded to include county jails.
The law is based on the notion that denying an individual’s freedom of movement based on the commission of a crime is a heavy responsibility that shouldn’t be relegated to private companies. Several other states do allow private prisons.
The proposed facility in Crete would be the first of its kind in Illinois, though ICE has three detention facilities already through contracts with county jails. Those facilities are in Mt. Vernon, Woodstock and Ullin, Ill.
An ICE official, who requested that he not be named, said recent reforms to detention standards should put to rest the concerns of groups like ICIRR.
“The process is ongoing,” the official said. “ICE works with various groups to make sure needs are addressed.”
CCA spokesman Michael Machak said the company provides “safe, reliable, humane housing for detainees.”
“Our record has been built and demonstrated over three decades of operations, and the economic benefits we create for communities and governments are significant,” Machak said. “The project in Crete has been initiated by ICE as part of the Obama administration’s vision for detention, with the goal of providing detainees with a humane and appropriate environment.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.