New Report Reveals Troubling Pattern: Jails and prisons close for one purpose, only to reopen for a different population

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Washington, DC - A new report from Detention Watch Network and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center calls attention to a troubling pattern in the U.S. carceral system: jails and prisons nationwide are closing for one purpose, only to reopen and cage a different group of people. The report, The Carceral Carousel, dives into case examples from Louisiana, California, Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, where criminal legal system facilities have been repurposed for immigration detention, immigration detention facilities repurposed for criminal legal system use, and other instances of recycled facilities within the federal corrections system. 

The report underscores an important dynamic of the sprawling carceral state: jails will be used to imprison some population of people for as long as the jails exist. Private prisons are profit-generators, incentivizing companies to ensure these cages remain operating regardless of who is incarcerated. But the financial and political incentives to keep these facilities in operation exist in public jails as well. The criminal justice and immigrant rights movements have shown that sustained pressure and community organizing locally, statewide, and nationally can lead to transformative wins that can help free people from prisons and detention centers. Still, there is much more to do to end the existence of these carceral facilities for good.

Case examples include Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recycling former criminal custody facilities in Louisiana, prison expansions and reconfigurations in California and Arizona, federal agencies transferring facilities in Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Mexico, and multiple forms of carceral recycling like in New Jersey.

Key takeaways from the report include:

  • Private prisons are only one of many players driving the constant rotation of jails and prisons from one use to another, but they play a nefarious role in reinforcing financial incentives to keep people jailed. 
  • There is a crucial need to transition communities reliant on jails and prisons away from carceral economies and toward sustainable, well-paying, and dignified industries that will provide meaningful work and resources for communities. 
  • In order to truly shrink the size and the reach of the carceral system, the immigrant justice, and criminal justice movements must strengthen strategic alliances to reduce and eliminate jail capacity for good, and not repurpose to incarcerate people in a different law enforcement agency’s custody. 

“Jails and prisons across the country hold people in abysmal conditions, but some are particularly notorious for abuse and mistreatment. Complaints, investigations, and public outcry about the treatment of people inside these facilities can lead to the end of contracts or temporary closure – but often, a facility remains an available cage that can be marketed to jail other populations. Even in facilities where appalling conditions have driven the closure of a facility for one purpose, those concerns seem to melt away when a new agency wants the space. This selective amnesia highlights why a focus on jail conditions alone is insufficient to achieve lasting change,” said Setareh Ghandehari, Advocacy Director at Detention Watch Network.

“We must be conscious of the fact that the carceral industry will perpetually shapeshift to survive, and at a deep cost to our communities. We must also see that our fight to close even one cage is a piece of the broader framework of mass incarceration. Because of this, our advocacy movements cannot work in silos. As demonstrated by the various case studies in this report, the struggles and victories of any advocate fighting to close a cage are linked,” said Grisel Ruiz, Senior Managing Attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Read the report here.

Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit Follow on Twitter @DetentionWatch.