Prisons Aren’t the Answer on Immigration

The Department of Homeland Security announced late last month that it is considering ending its use of private prisons, as the Justice Department has decided to do. The Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, told his department’s advisory council to study the issue and report back to him by the end of November.

That gives him only a few weeks to read, review and act before everything gets bumped to the Trump or Clinton administration. To save time, Mr. Johnson could do the wise thing and end the contracts now.

There is no need to further study the failings of the private prison industry. Mr. Johnson only has to read the Justice Department inspector general’s report in August about the prevalence of safety and security problems at private prisons, or a recent Mother Jones article that looks inside a brutal, mismanaged Louisiana prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, one of two companies that dominate the immigrant-prison business.

Whether private prison contracts should be canceled or simply not renewed, or whether Homeland Security should contract with state or county lockups, or run its own, will need to be answered. But the administration should first be asking itself why it locks up so many immigrants who are not safety threats, who are not there to be punished, who in many cases are refugees and who are the mothers of young children or are young children.

The Obama administration has spent years endorsing and enacting smart criminal-justice reforms, including pushing back against decades of useless, degrading imprisonment of nonviolent and petty offenders. But there is one huge area where it seems immune to enlightenment: immigration enforcement.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, takes about 300,000 immigrants a year into detention; the daily population averaged about 28,000 in fiscal 2015. About 63 percent of detainees are held in private prisons under contract with Homeland Security.

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