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Let’s not take a victory lap on the end of private prisons just yet

 Detainees, women detention center for immigration
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

In the same week that the Department of Justice announced its plans to end the use of private prisons, after finding that they were less safe and less effective than government facilities, the Washington Post reported the details of a $1 billion contract awarded to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to build a detention center to house women and children who are seeking asylum in the U.S.

While the DOJ's decision is a victory for advocates who want to see reform in the criminal-justice system, it is merely a dint in abolishing the industry that profits from the incarceration of men, women and children. Nearly two-thirds of immigration detention beds today are operated by for-profit prison corporations, according to the Center for American Progress. By contrast, less than 10 percent of federal and state prisoners are being held in for-profit prisons.

Subpar care at detention centers has led to in-custody deaths, according to a report by a coalition of advocacy groups earlier this year. Most recently, graphic photos of Arizona Border Patrol detention facilities were released by the federal district court in Arizona, which show overcrowded, filthy facilities, and one still image shows a mother changing her baby's diaper on a concrete floor.

The purpose of detention centers is to hold and process immigrants for possible deportation. Some of these facilities are meant to hold immigrants for hours, not several days, or even months. However, with Homeland Security Appropriations Act, there are mandated quotas for these facilities to "maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds," so there is an incentive to detain.

It is difficult to reconcile the country's urgency to reform the criminal-justice system, including the end of private prisons, with the record profits posted by private prison companies due to the increased revenue from detention centers. In 2015, CCA made 14 percent of its profit from a single detention center, the Washington Post reported.

The government awarding CCA a $1 billion contract even as the country is starting to move away from private prisons is evidence that immigrants continue to be casualties of the policy negotiation and of powerful lobbying by private prison companies to stay in business and to stay profitable.

If the country is serious about abolishing the private prison industry, then the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and state governments must follow the Department of Justice in ending the use of for-profit facilities. We cannot take a victory lap just yet.

Commentary by Julissa Arce, the author of the forthcoming book, "My (Underground) American Dream" (Sept. 13, 2016). Arce made national and international headlines when she revealed that she had achieved the American Dream of wealth and status working her way up to vice president at Goldman Sachs by age 27 while being an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She currently works with the Ascend Educational Fund, a scholarship program for immigrant students in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @julissaarce.

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