As US government moves away from private prisons, detained migrant mothers go on hunger strike

by Dan Stockman

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I once had an editor who held up a copy of a two-page memo I had received from an unnamed source and remarked, "I didn't realize dynamite weighed so little."

That same thought applies to the memo written last week by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, which quietly dropped a bombshell: The U.S. Department of Justice would phase out using private contractors to run federal prisons.

Yates' memo followed a report issued by the department's inspector general that found the privately run prisons are not as safe or secure as government-run facilities. Yates said they also are not saving money.

"Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities," she said.

Problems the inspector general found included housing new inmates in units reserved for those with disciplinary issues, even though they had done nothing wrong, and issues with providing and monitoring health care for inmates.

The report recommended better oversight of the contractors, but Yates instead instructed the Bureau of Prisons not to renew contracts when they expire and to scale back existing contracts to reflect the declining prison population.

While the news was, indeed, a big deal — about 40,000 federal inmates are held in private prisons — it does not affect state prisons, which hold twice as many inmates in private facilities.

Also not affected: detention facilities for families detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum. Those prisons are under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.

One of the contractors holding families for ICE is the county of Berks, Pennsylvania, which until recently had not gotten much attention from immigration activists because it was much smaller than the two facilities in Texas and does not have the same allegations of problems.

In January, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked the facility's license, saying state rules do not allow for minors to be housed with adults, and there is no provision in state law for holding families. The Berks County Residential Center has appealed that decision with the department and is allowed to continue operating during the appeal process.

But just because there haven't been allegations of problems at Berks does not mean everything is fine. (Although, to be fair, the issue here is with ICE, not the facility itself.) Twenty-two of the mothers being held there began a hunger strike Aug. 7, each only drinking water, to protest the length of their detentions.

The women, all from Central America, have been held with their children for an average of 300 days.

At the start of the hunger strike, the women wrote to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, NBC reports:

'On many occasions our children have thought about SUICIDE because of the confinement and desperation that is caused by being here. The teenagers say BEING HERE, LIFE MAKES NO SENSE, THAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO BREAK THE WINDOW TO JUMP OUT AND END THIS NIGHTMARE,' the mothers write in the letter. ...

'We are desperate and we have decided that: WE WILL GET OUT ALIVE OR DEAD. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: WE WILL DO IT!'

DHS says it continues to monitor the situation.

Then there is the Border Patrol, which holds would-be immigrants apprehended at the border until they can be turned over to ICE. Activists alleged in a class-action lawsuit filed last year that immigrants are held in dirty, overcrowded cells in southeast Arizona.

As part of the discovery process in that lawsuit, the Border Patrol turned over images from surveillance cameras in its facilities; on Aug. 17, the judge in the case made some of those images public.

One photo shows 15 men in one tiny cell, sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, wrapped in thermal blankets to keep warm. Another shows a woman and children sleeping on the concrete floor. Another shows a man drinking from a gallon jug, the only apparent source of water for at least eight men in one cell, many of whom are sleeping on the concrete. The cells are so cold the immigrants call them iceboxes.

Border Patrol says it has not violated the detainees' rights, but, The New York Times reports:

Experts hired by the plaintiffs to visit the stations and review the images reached a different conclusion. One of them was Eldon Vail, a former secretary for the Department of Corrections in Washington State. In his report to the court, also released late Wednesday, Mr. Vail said the conditions in the cells were 'unnecessarily harsh, dangerous and contrary to accepted industry practices and standards.'

A Border Patrol manual says the cells are not designed for sleeping and detainees should not be held there for more than 12 hours, but a report by the American Immigration Council found detainees in Tucson were held an average of 24 hours.

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[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]