The Biden administration on Thursday announced it would discontinue the use of two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails in Massachusetts and Georgia as part of a broader effort to improve conditions inside the U.S. civil immigration detention system, the largest in the world.
In a memo obtained by CBS News, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed ICE to stop holding immigrant detainees at a jail in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and to end cooperation contracts with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the facility. Mayorkas said the jail, which state officials said violated the civil rights of detainees during an altercation last year, is of “minimal operational significance” to ICE.
“Moreover, there is ample evidence that the Detention Center’s treatment of detained individuals and the conditions of detention are unacceptable,” Mayorkas added in his memo to Tae Johnson, the acting ICE director.
Mayorkas also ordered ICE to stop using the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, “as soon as possible.” The facility, which is operated by a for-profit prison company, has been at the center of allegations of detainee mistreatment, including non-consensual medical procedures.
In his memo, Mayorkas said his directive represented “a first step” in addressing concerns about conditions at ICE detention centers. He said he would continue to work with Johnson, the top ICE official, to ensure “lasting improvements” to immigration detention.
“Preliminarily, allow me to state one foundational principle: we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” Mayorkas wrote.
Advocates for immigrants praised Mayorkas’ directive as a “monumental” decision.
“We see this as the first of what we hope are many steps to shutter ICE detention facilities nationwide because of the recognition that they are often sites of inhumanity and cruelty,” Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told CBS News. “And they’re a needless waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Both of the facilities Mayorkas included in his directive are under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) inspector general.
Investigators have been looking into a violent altercation in May 2020 between facility staff at the Bristol County jail and immigrant detainees who were concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.
In a December 2020 report, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey found that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his staff used excessive force — including canines, flash bangs, pepper spray and riot shields — against ICE detainees who had refused to get tested for COVID-19 and barricaded themselves inside the jail. Finding that county officials violated the civil rights of detainees during the disturbance, Healey urged ICE to stop holding immigrants at the jail.
The Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia, meanwhile, garnered national attention last year after a nurse who worked there alleged that some of the immigrant women detained at the facility had complained about being subjected to unwanted gynecological procedures. Mahendra Amin, who was later identified as the doctor who performed the procedures, has denied any wrongdoing.
The DHS inspector general has been probing the allegations from the Georgia jail.
Mayorkas on Thursday ordered ICE to preserve documents for the ongoing investigations and to protect potential witnesses.
ICE lists a total of 141 detention facilities in its public database. But in fiscal year 2019, the agency held detention contracts or agreements with 233 facilities, 185 of which were used to hold detainees, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in February. As of May 8, there were 19,041 detainees incarcerated at ICE facilities nationwide.
There were 114 detainees at the Georgia facility as of Thursday, while just seven remained at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in Massachusetts, according to a DHS spokesperson.
The Biden administration also moved to scrap a contract with local law enforcement in Bristol County to help ICE carry out some of its immigration enforcement duties, known as a 287(g) agreement.
As a presidential candidate, President Biden pledged to end the Clinton-era program that grew exponentially under the Trump administration, saying they “undermine trust and cooperation between local law enforcement and the communities they are charged to protect.”
In testimony before Congress last week, Johnson, the interim ICE chief, told lawmakers the policy was useful, but did not need to be forced onto cities and states with objections.
“It doesn’t have to be signing up for [the] 287(g) program, but we just want to keep those lines of communication open,” Johnson said, noting there “is lots of middle ground out there.”
“I certainly recognize the issues associated with some that think that it just results in certain folks being apprehended and potentially targeted, which is certainly something I don’t think any of us want to see,” he added.
The ACLU has pushed Mayorkas to review all for-profit ICE detention facilities and 287(g) agreements, according to Shah. The organization has also pressed the Biden administration to hold off from re-admitting detainees released from ICE facilities due to health concerns related to COVID-19.
“The administration has made clear that they take the risk of COVID-19 more seriously than the prior administration, and we think commensurate with that approach, they should also be ensuring people are not held in ICE detention who demonstrably did not need to be here,” Shah said.
In April, the ACLU sent a letter to Mayorkas, urging the Biden administration to close 39 detention centers — including both jails in Irwin and Bristol Counties — that it believes should be shut down due to reports of abuse against detainees, limited access to lawyers and insufficient justification for opening them.
Last month, protesters interrupted Mr. Biden at a political rally in Duluth, Georgia, with loud calls for the administration to end ICE detention.
“I agree with you,” Mr. Biden replied. “I’m working on it, man. Give me another five days.”
“There should be no private prisons period. That’s what they’re talking about,” the president said in response to demonstrators. “Private detention centers — they should not exist and we are working to close all of them.”