Details of Private Prison Corporation Immigration Contracts Not Exempt from Freedom of Information Act, Judge Rules

July 15, 2016, New York – Last night, in a case seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding the detention bed quota in immigration detention facilities, a federal judge ruled that the details of government contracts with private prison corporations are not exempt from public release under FOIA. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had argued that the contracts were “confidential commercial information” and releasing them would harm the competitive advantage of the private prison companies, claims roundly rejected by the court.  At a time when medical neglect and deaths in immigration detention are receiving increasing attention, the Court also rejected the government’s attempts to keep secret the staffing levels of medical and social service personnel.

“ICE has increasingly utilized private prisons over the years, making the system less transparent to the public and unaccountable to immigrants whose lives are impacted by detention,” said Silky Shah, Co-Director of Detention Watch Network, which brought the lawsuit. “However, with this ruling it is clear that ICE’s tactics to keep the detention system secret and hidden have failed. Rather than wasting advocates’ time and energy on lengthy FOIA litigation, ICE should immediately make all information pertaining to detention contracts publicly accessible and transparent.”

“Today’s ruling is important both for the freedom of information and for efforts to curb the undue influence of private prison corporations on immigration detention practices,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Ghita Schwarz. “The Court has made clear that ICE and private prison contractors may not keep their contractual arrangements secret.   The Freedom of Information Act obligates the government to inform the public of the details of its immigration detention system, and ICE can’t hide behind private prison corporations to evade its public reporting obligations.”

Attorneys praised the Court for holding ICE accountable to the public.  Professor Jenny-Brooke Condon, Director of the Seton Hall Law School Equal Justice Clinic and co-counsel in the litigation said, “The ruling is a resounding victory for democratic transparency and accountability:  it preserves the public’s essential role in checking government abuse, waste and dysfunction in an era of increasing privatization.”

Detention Watch Network and CCR filed the FOIA litigation to obtain information about the workings of the detention bed quota, which requires the funding of 34,000 immigration beds at any given time. The information ICE sought to keep secret is crucial for illuminating the financial incentives behind prison contracting as well as the social and medical resources available to immigrants detained within the system.  

In June, Detention Watch Network (DWN) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a report, Banking on Detention 2016 Update, showing the extent to which ICE grants financial benefits to private and public entities that detain immigrants through government contracts requiring ICE to pay for guaranteed minimums at detention facilities. The report argued that this has rendered immigrants, including children and families, a source of profit for contractors.

The case is Detention Watch Network et al. v. ICE et al.  Read today’s ruling here.

For more information, visit CCR’s case page.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at


Last modified 

April 18, 2019