An immigration surge at the southern border has exploded into a full-blown crisis for President Joe Biden, testing his ability to cope without resorting to the kinds of harsh treatment that prompted bipartisan condemnation of his predecessor, President Donald Trump. So far, Biden doesn’t seem to be faring well. On his watch, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to rely on private prisons to house thousands of detainees.
The administration euphemistically calls one private facility, northeast of Austin, Texas, the T. Don Hutto “Residential Center,” as if it were some kind of modified senior-care facility complete with shuffleboard courts and lounge chairs. Hutto is unmistakably a prison, complete with dank cells, armed guards and layer upon layer of fencing designed to keep detainees from escaping.
The administration inherited the 10-year Hutto contract from Trump. But that doesn’t mean Biden needs to continue using such symbols of Trump’s punitive policies. By preserving Trump’s legacy, Biden not only is keeping Hutto in business but also is maintaining, at least temporarily, Trump’s draconian caps on refugee entries.
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Using Hutto is a supremely bad idea for many reasons, first among them that immigration detainees are not prisoners and have not committed crimes that merit imprisonment. Many, if not most, are fleeing untenable economic conditions in their home countries. Others are fleeing for their lives because their own governments won’t crack down on rampant corruption and gang violence. But the operative word here is fleeing, as in seeking shelter inside a country that is fully capable of helping them but reluctant to do so.
Once an unlawful border-crosser is captured, that person’s care and housing becomes the sole responsibility of the U.S. government, not a private business. The track record of private prisons in America is spotty at best. Various states that previously used them, such as California, Illinois and Nevada, are imposing restrictions. New Jersey, New Mexico, Washington state and Maryland are reconsidering their private-prison contracts, National Public Radio reports. Missouri, for all its conservative desire to let private enterprise take over government functions, smartly draws the line when it comes to prisons. Its two private prisons closed in 2010.
There are good reasons why: The primary mission of any private business is maximizing profits. That would be fine if the goal was to minimize wastage in the production of widgets and cutting corners to trim costs. But when the widgets are imprisoned humans, and the corners cut mean substandard or even abusive inmate treatment, the private business has no place doing the government’s job.
The much-touted cost savings driving the private-prison movement doesn’t compensate for lax care and alleged sexual abuse of detainees by guards, which is exactly what’s been alleged in court regarding Hutto. This is Trump’s ugly legacy. Biden must move quickly to ensure it doesn’t become his legacy as well.