(CN) – Civil-rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio are calling for the federal government to halt efforts to convert a for-profit prison in Youngstown into a detention center for undocumented immigrants.
The coalition sent a letter Monday to Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in response to reports that his department has entered into negotiations with Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that recently rebranded itself as CoreCivic, to buy prison space.
The groups fighting the deal include the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Ohio, the Cleveland Branch of the NAACP, the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Ohio Hispanic Coalition.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security was looking to buy space in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, or NEOCC, in Youngstown – as well as facilities in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas – to house the record numbers of immigrants being detained by the federal government.
The ACLU and its supporters claim the recent influx of undocumented immigrants is made up primarily of asylum seekers like Haitians fleeing national disasters, and they stress that all people deserve humane treatment.
“The decision to negotiate with private prisons is especially troubling,” the letter to Secretary Johnson reads, “as just two months ago the Department of Justice announced the end of its use of private prisons after finding evidence of widespread abuse.”
The ACLU points to Corrections Corporation of America’s troubling track record in Ohio to argue that no person, including undocumented immigrants, should be detained for profit.
“When NEOCC opened in 1997, CCA staffed the prison with officers who had little to no experience in corrections and populated it with 1,700 high-level prisoners,” the letter states. “Within the first 14 months the prison was in operation, there were 13 stabbings, two murders and six escapes.”
The letter goes on to explain how Youngstown officials eventually sued CCA in federal court for failing to abide by its own standards.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons opted not to renew its contract at the NEOCC with CCA in 2014, shortly after 140 prisoners led a 14-hour protest against unsanitary food conditions, lack of medical care, inadequate programming and the unfair use of solitary confinement.
“It is disturbing that a prison that has been deemed unfit for federal prisoners may now be used to house asylum seekers by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE], even though the prison and its operator remain the same,” the letter to Johnson states.
The ACLU-led coalition is asking that the Department of Homeland Security immediately suspend contract negotiations with CCA or any other government entity regarding the use of NEOCC to detain immigrants.
They also ask that community stakeholders in Ohio be briefed on the status of the contract negotiations; that all ICE detention procurements be suspended until after the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Committee has completed a review of ICE’s use of private prisons; and that ICE implement nongovernmental organization recommendations to reduce detention levels, beginning with an immediate halt to the detention of families, asylum seekers and other vulnerable populations.
“We should be seeking more cost-effective and appropriate alternatives to ensure all immigrants’ well-being,” the letter concludes. “Detention should be a last resort, and [the Department of Homeland Security] should not be in the business of bailing out prisons for profit.”