Despite Biden’s pledge, a private prison is becoming a for-profit immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania

GEO Group employee closing metal door.
A patch is shown on the uniform of a guard with the GEO Group, Inc., during a media tour of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. The GEO Group is the private company that operates the center for the US government.
  • President Joe Biden issued an executive order phasing out the use of for-profit federal prisons.
  • But the order did not apply to privately-run immigrant detention centers.
  • ICE is detaining more than 21,000 people, up from 14,000 when Biden took office.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

When protesters disrupted one of his speeches in June, demanding he end the use of for-profit immigrant detention centers, President Joe Biden responded with frustration.

"I agree with you," he said at a rally in Georgia. "I'm working on it, man!"

But more than three months later, critics say the president has failed to keep this promise.

Just this week, it was announced that US Customs and Immigration Enforcement intends to house as many as 1,875 people at a jail in central Pennsylvania that will be run by the GEO Group, one of the nation's largest for-profit detention companies, local outlet The Progress News reported.

More than 21,000 people are currently being held in ICE detention centers across the country, up from the 14,000 detained when the new administration took power - though well below the over 55,000 immigrants detained at the peak in 2019 under former President Donald Trump.

From private prison to for-profit detention

Soon after taking office, Biden issued an executive order that called for the Department of Justice to phase out its contracts with private prison companies. At the time, Politico reported that he was considering whether to extend such a ban to ICE. He never did.

Now facilities that were once private prisons are becoming for-profit immigrant detention centers. The new GEO-run facility in Pennsylvania, for example, was previously a GEO-run federal prison - the company announcing the day of Biden's inauguration that the federal government had opted not to renew its prison contract.

It "flies in the face of the administration's commitment to fight for racial equity and disavows the very foundational principles of the executive order," Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director of Detention Watch Network, an activist group, said in a statement. "The perverse financial incentives that drive incarceration are ever-present and thriving in ICE detention."

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, a group that helped expose involuntary medical procedures at a for-profit ICE facility, told Insider that the conversion of private prisons to private detention centers would jeopardize the rights of immigrants.

"It is reprehensible that the Biden administration continues to entrust the well-being of immigrants to private prison corporations with horrendous human rights records," she said. "The only interest driving prison corporations is the profit motive."

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