Citing $1 million a day of wasted federal dollars, the American Civil Liberties Union called on President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday to close 39 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities across the U.S., including the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral. The federal government has been paying for the empty bed spaces at these facilities, almost all run by privately-owned companies, which the ACLU called “wasting” taxpayer money. The ACLU established a criteria for the 39 facilities it is calling on the federal government to close. In its statement, issued Wednesday, the ACLU said that Otero County Processing Center (OCPC) was included because of its “extensive record of civil rights violations and inhumane treatment.”
The letter, sent to The Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, urged the secretary to announce his intention to close ICE detention facilities across the country. “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 letter states.
A lively debate in the House Judiciary Committee around a proposal for New Mexico to stop renewing contracts with private detention centers ended with one Democrat voting against the bill, along with all Republicans, but it passed 7 to 5. HB 40, the Private Detention Moratorium Act, would phase out the state’s reliance on private companies to house its prison population within 3 to 5 years. New Mexico incarcerates more people per capita than any other state and, disproportionately, the people housed are Black and Latino, advocates for the bill have said. But House Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, a Democrat from Milan and a former magistrate judge, voted against the bill. He said he used to work in the state prison system and he questioned whether people housed in public detention centers are really better off.
New Mexico’s top prison official said the state could eventually end its practice of contracting with private, for-profit firms to operate four of its 11 detention facilities, but the change won’t come anytime soon. The comments Friday by Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero followed an executive order earlier this week by President Joe Biden, who said the U.S. Department of Justice must end its reliance on private operators for federal prisons. Tafoya Lucero said she’s not philosophically opposed to the idea of getting rid of privately run prisons — but she doesn’t favor the state taking such action now.
“Conceptually, the existence of a for profit-entity that is utilized for incarceration is definitely something we are moving away from, that we desire to move away from,” she said in an interview Friday. “The point I really want to make is when it’s possible to do it, we should do it. But we can’t be put in a situation where we have to do it overnight.”
She said she couldn’t give a specific time frame for when it might be reasonable for the state to phase out privately run facilities.
“A lot of it comes down to what the budget is and being able to forecast what our resources in the state look like in the years to come,” she said.
Tafoya Lucero, who worked in the state prison system for 18 years before being appointed Cabinet secretary in 2019, told lawmakers on the New Mexico House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on Thursday she opposes a bill that would outlaw privately operated state prisons.
House Bill 40 would allow existing contracts to expire but prohibit renewals, which she said would result in a loss of 3,000 inmate beds.