▶ Watch Video: Homeland Security secretary launches internal probe to root out extremism

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Wednesday urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to close dozens of immigration detention facilities as part of a renewed push for President Biden to follow through on several campaign pledges now that he’s been in office for 100 days.

In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas shared first with CBS News, the ACLU identified 39 detention centers used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that it believes should be shut down due to reports of abuse against detainees, limited access to lawyers and insufficient justification for opening them. 

“With lower ICE arrest rates and already-reduced levels of detention arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE is currently paying to maintain thousands of empty beds, at enormous taxpayer expense — wasting hundreds of millions of dollars that would be better spent on alternatives to detention and other programmatic priorities,” the ACLU wrote in its letter Wednesday.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden vowed to utilize alternatives to holding immigrants in detention and to end contracts with for-profit prison companies, which operate many of the more than 200 facilities ICE can use to hold detainees.

The ACLU’s letter urged Mayorkas to “dramatically downscale” immigration detention “in light of the historically low number of people in ICE detention.”

The number of ICE detainees has reached a historic low under the Biden administration, dating back two decades. Currently, there are roughly 15,000 people in ICE detention, including about 1,500 parents and children in holding facilities for families, according to government data.

Mayorkas said during an interview in March that “a detention center is not where a family belongs.” In a March 5 court filing at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the Biden administration announced plans to wind down the long-term detention of migrant families.

In March, ICE tapped a Texas-based nonprofit to house some migrant families in hotels in Texas and Arizona. Interim ICE Director Tae Johnson said then that the contract would provide more than 1,200 beds.

But 100 days into office, Mr. Biden is yet to keep all of his campaign promises. In January, the Biden administration ordered the Department of Justice to end its reliance on private prisons, but it has yet to make any announcements regarding for-profit immigration detention centers.

“The Biden administration’s exclusion of immigration detention facilities in its executive order made no sense given everything we know about human rights abuses occurring at the hands of private contractors who got an incentive to maximize profits in immigration detentions as well as within the criminal legal setting,” Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, told CBS News.

“The administration also failed to put under immediate review all of the contracts ICE has with state and local agencies, where we’ve seen grave human rights abuses in the hands of local sheriffs or county officials,” Shah continued.

As of April 10, ICE listed a total of 141 detention facilities in its public database. But in fiscal year 2019, ICE held detention contracts or agreements with 233 facilities, 185 of which it used to hold detainees, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released earlier this year. The GAO investigation also revealed the federal government’s procedural missteps, costing taxpayers millions of dollars for unused beds after entering into 43 contracts with guaranteed minimum payments. 

“We’ve got this really new unique moment in time where ICE detention levels are far lower than they were under the Trump administration. And yet we still have this infrastructure that exists to detain tens and tens of thousands of people every day,” Shah told CBS News. “So why do we have all these empty beds in this network of more than 200 facilities around the country?”

In its report, the GAO wrote that “[a]s of May 11, 2020, ICE was paying for 12,027 empty beds a day, on average, at a cost of $20.5 million for the month.” The report also found that in the same month, ICE forked over an additional $41.2 million in “flat rates” to 11 facilities while using only 38% of the beds it paid for. The result was an average of $1.5 million spent per day on guaranteed minimum bed space not in use by the federal government. 

The agency entered into 40 agreements for new detention space between fiscal year 2017 and May 2020, including 28 with guaranteed minimum payments, in addition to new deals with state and local officials who outsourced facilities to private companies.

ICE also put detainees at risk by placing them in potentially inadequate facilities with known histories of detainee deaths, escapes, and excessive force, the report indicated. 

“Fiscal Year 2020 was the deadliest year in ICE detention in 15 years,” the ACLU said in a statement to CBS News. “Last year alone, we saw reports of increased use of force, solitary confinement, patterns of sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and an utter failure to protect people from COVID-19.”

In its appeal to the Biden administration, the ACLU has called on DHS to shut down 39 facilities in the near term. Among the top ten listed is the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. 

Earlier this month, DHS’ top watchdog found widespread mistreatment of immigrants at the facility in Eloy, citing nearly 1,300 grievances from immigrants held there.. DHS’ Office of the Inspector General said detainees depicted “an environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse.” 

After immigrants held at the for-profit prison company held peaceful protests in April 2020 over concerns that staff were not providing the necessary personal protective equipment, migrants told inspectors detention center personnel deployed pepper spray to quell one of the protests on April 13, which was also captured by surveillance footage. 

The ACLU argues that while mistreatment at ICE facilities pre-dates the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks among detainees exacerbated already tenuous health and hygiene practices. “ICE just didn’t take COVID seriously enough,” Shah said. “That’s why we’ve seen facilities where dozens, sometimes hundreds of people with COVID-19.” As of April 23, 1,147 detainees currently in custody tested positive for COVID-19, roughly 7% of the overall population in ICE facilities, according to data published by the agency.

Also on the list are the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida, and Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, California. An internal audit by ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) in February 2021 found the former had “inoperable” telephones and toilets, as well as a blanket ban on all marriage requests, preventing at least one migrant from tying the knot. 

Seven out of 12 detainees interviewed by ODO officials at the Calexico facility in a February 2021 inspection characterized contact with ICE officers as “irregular and sporadic.” One immigrant interviewed told inspectors that while in a medical facility for treatment of his mental health challenges, he was twice placed in “observation,” and kept in a room naked for two to three days at a time. At least one detainee required immediate suicide prevention and intervention following allegations of self-harm. 

The letter signed by the ACLU also calls on the Biden administration to close facilities in remote locations with limited access to legal counsel, a step the non-profit believes aligns with the president’s frequent refrains on restoring human dignity. “We think a lot of people — including a lot of people in this administration — agree that if you’re seeking asylum, you should at least have a lawyer who can help you navigate this Byzantine system,” Shah noted. 

The availability of immigration attorneys within 100 miles of detention centers opened under the Trump administration ranked among the lowest of all detention facilities nationwide, a 2020 report by the ACLU found, deeming the remote locations “justice free zones.” Under U.S. law, immigrants in removal proceedings are not guaranteed a lawyer at the government’s expense.

CBS News has reached out to DHS and ICE for a response to the ACLU’s letter.