Youth and Family Detention Facilities

This section focuses on the industries of youth imprisonment as part of the U.S. criminal punishment system and the detention of youth and families as part of the U.S. immigration system. Facilities that imprison youth in the U.S. include juvenile “correctional” and “residential” facilities, immigrant detention facilities, and adult jails and prisons. This section deals with the first two, while our research on adult prisons and adult immigrant detention centers can be found here.

While the legal standards for youth imprisonment are different than those for adults, the same realities of racial disparity, abuse, torture, and solitary confinement are reproduced and sometimes accentuated in the juvenile system. For-profit, privately operated facilities are subject to inconsistent regulation and oversight as well as to cuts on basic costs, which create conditions for abuse and neglect within an already violent system.

The main companies involved in this sector:
Aspen Education Group, a subsidiary of Acadia Healthcare of Franklin, TN (NASDAQ: ACHC)
CoreCivic of Nashville, TN (NYSE: CXW)
Abraxas Youth and Family Services, a subsidiary of The GEO Group of Boca Raton, FL (NYSE: GEO)
Caliburn International Corp., owned by DC Capital Partners (Private Equity)
Sequel Youth and Family Services, owned by Altamont Capital Partners (Private Equity)
Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS), of San Antonio, TX (Non-Profit)
Rite of Passage Inc., of Minden, NV (Non-Profit)
Southwest Key, of Austin, TX (Non-Profit)
Management and Training Corporation of Centerville, UT (Private)
Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp. of Emlenton, PA (Private)
BHSB Holdings, of Tampa, FL, through its subsidiary TrueCore Behavioral Solutions (formerly G4S Youth Services) (Private)
Youth Opportunity Investments LLC, of Carmel, IN (Private)

Youth in the Criminal Punishment System

Conditions in Youth Facilities

By 2019, an estimated 51,000 people under the age of 18 were imprisoned at any given time within the U.S. juvenile and adult criminal punishment systems. Over thirty percent were incarcerated in privately-operated facilities. While the juvenile system separates minors from adults, the vast majority of youth face conditions similar to those in adult prisons. Most incarcerated youth “experience distinctly carceral conditions,” imprisoned for long terms in large locked facilities, according to the Prison Policy Institute. Moreover, much like the adult criminal punishment system, incarcerated youth are disproportionately people of Color and are increasingly detained before being convicted or for low-level offenses.

Consistent reports about sexual violence, physical violence, the use of chemical restraints, physical restraints, and solitary confinement expose disturbing trends in the juvenile punishment system. Official 2012 data of the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that nearly one in ten youth has suffered sexual victimization while incarcerated, and other reports exposed “egregious overuse” of solitary confinement on incarcerated youth nationwide. The prevalence of abuse and its impacts are further compounded by the geographic isolation of many facilities, separating youth from their family, community, and support networks. Youth incarceration causes severe long-term effects on the mental and physical health of youth as well as the economic and social well-being of their immediate families and communities.

Between 1999 and 2015, youth incarceration in the U.S. declined by 55 percent. This trend was accompanied by a shift towards widening e-carceration and community corrections, placing growing numbers of youth under the control and supervision of government agencies and private companies. At the same time, the decline in public funding has outpaced the decrease in the number of incarcerated youth, leaving youth in facilities that are increasingly overcrowded and understaffed.

Privately-run Juvenile Facilities

Private companies have played a sizeable role in the industry of youth incarceration since the 1980s, particularly in the operation of smaller “residential” style facilities. As of 2018, 82 percent of group homes, 67 percent of residential treatment centers, and 64 percent of shelters are privately operated. While most private juvenile facilities are small, private companies operate facilities on all levels of the industry, including some of the largest youth prisons in the nation.

In order to maximize profit, privately-run youth facilities cut programming and educational opportunities, such as reentry planning, college prep, and vocational training. Other cuts, in guard training and health services, may compromise the safety of all people inside these facilities, with possible life-threatening consequences to incarcerated youth. Private facilities are understaffed and undertrained, leading to higher rates of violence than in government-run facilities. The death rate in private facilities is five times greater than in government-run facilities, according to 2018 Office of Juvenile Justice statistics. Private youth detention facilities are also more likely than government-run facilities to be overcrowded, as they seek to incarcerate as many people as possible at the lowest operating cost.

Additional problems inherent in the for-profit model of youth incarceration is exemplified in the case of the Pennsylvania “Kids for Cash” scandal. In 2010 and 2011, two Pennsylvania judges were convicted on charges of racketeering, after having sentenced thousands of children to jail in return for $2.6 million in kickbacks from private prison companies. One of the judges established an investor group to build a private, for-profit detention facility named PA Child Care, owned by private company Mid-Atlantic Youth Services. The characteristics of for-profit “correctional” facilities demonstrate how the profit motive is at odds with the purported rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile ‘justice’ system.

The largest share of youth is incarcerated in detention centers, which are the juvenile punishment system’s equivalents of jails. These are typically operated by local government authorities and are used for the temporary custody of defendants awaiting legal proceedings. Post-conviction, most youth are incarcerated in long-term secure prisons, euphemistically called “training schools.” These facilities are often some of the oldest, largest, most geographically isolated and restrictive facilities in the industry of youth incarceration. As of 2019, twenty percent of long-term secure facilities and seven percent of detention centers were privately operated.

Another type of facilities is commonly referred to as “residential” facilities, which includes treatment centers, group homes, and youth shelters. While larger “correctional” facilities are typically more restrictive, the conditions inside “residential” facilities may be as harsh. Seventy percent of youth in “residential” facilities are still in locked facilities. Privately operated facilities often evade oversight and regulation because of their smaller size and private operation. Youth incarcerated in “residential” style facilities can also be more isolated from their family and community, because these facilities often detain youth from all across the country.

One such example is Clarinda Academy, an Iowa residential treatment and foster care facility run by the private for-profit company Sequel Youth Services, where multiple reports of sexual assault and physical abuse were reported in March 2019. In another case, non-profit Rite of Passage lost all of its contracts in the states of Colorado and Arkansas because of repeated and continuous complaints of abuse and neglect. The organization still runs juvenile and immigrant youth detention facilities across the U.S. despite having a trail of reports of staff neglecting and assaulting youth dating as far back as 1986.

In another case, the state of Arkansas canceled contracts with two non-profits in 2017 after accusations of abuse and neglect emerged at several of their “residential” facilities. The state re-awarded the contracts to Rite of Passage until March 2019, when additional accusations of abuse and neglect led the state to terminate the contracts and re-award them to another non-profit youth detention operator, Youth Opportunity Investments. However, in May 2019 new files emerged documenting dozens of cases of abuse, neglect, and death in facilities managed by Youth Opportunity Investments in Michigan between 2012 and 2018. This demonstrates the persistent failure of states to monitor and regulate private contractors’ performance in this sector, resulting in the systemic failure of authorities to keep the youth safe.

Ten percent of incarcerated youth are in adult jails or prisons. Each state makes its own laws regarding youth incarceration and determines at what age youth can be tried and sentenced as adults. For example, in Vermont and Wisconsin youth as young as ten can be prosecuted as adults. It is difficult to ascertain how many incarcerated youths in adult jails and prisons are incarcerated in privately operated facilities. Our research regarding prison management in the adult criminal punishment system can be found here.

Youth Detention in the Immigration System

Three Detention Systems: CBP, ICE, ORR

Almost all immigrant youth detained in the U.S. are incarcerated in one of three types of detention facilities: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Family Detention centers, and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) detention facilities. While U.S. immigration policy has seen significant and rapid changes, corporate involvement in this industry has largely remained dominated by the same private companies and organizations.

Most minors arrested by Border Patrol are first detained in CBP “short-term” detention facilities. As far as we know, CBP detention facilities are all owned and operated by the government. While CBP does not have the legal authority to detain children for more than three days (72 hours), this policy is routinely violated in practice. In June 2019, it was revealed that a CBP detention facility in Clint, Texas had incarcerated over 250 children for up to 27 days. Conditions in CBP facilities have been described by medical professionals as comparable to “torture facilities” with  “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” Between December 2018 and June 2019, six children have died in CBP custody due to neglect and lack of adequate access to medical care.

While in a CBP detention facility, asylum seekers undergo an initial screening, known as a "credible fear interview," which is the first step in determining if they qualify for asylum. Children who pass the interview and are accompanied by adult family members are transferred to ICE family detention facilities, while children who are unaccompanied or who were separated from family are transferred to ORR facilities.

ICE family detention facilities have large detention capacities and closely resemble ICE adult immigrant detention facilities. As of June 2019, there are three ICE Family Detention centers:
●      South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX - operated by private prison company CoreCivic - detention capacity 2400.
●      Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, TX - operated by private prison company GEO Group - detention capacity 1158.
●      Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, PA -  government-run by Berks County, detention capacity 96.

As seen above, the vast majority of children held in ICE family detention facilities are in privately-run facilities. ICE family detention centers are generally not supposed to hold people for more than twenty days. However, this legal restriction, typically referred to as the Flores Settlement, has been repeatedly challenged by the U.S. government seeking to detain families indefinitely. In March 2019, the Trump administration released a budget proposal seeking to expand ICE’s family detention capacity from roughly 3,300 to 13,300 people.

ORR detention facilities: The Office of Refugee Resettlement is a division within the Department of Health and Human Services purportedly tasked with the “custody and care” of unaccompanied children until they can be released to family members or an appropriate family sponsor during their immigration legal proceedings. Children can be held by ORR indefinitely, but on average they are detained for several months. In March 2019, ORR reported that the average detention period for children in its custody stood at 89 days, although in the past some children have been detained in ORR custody for as long as a year. ORR facilities vary considerably in size and confinement levels ranging from high-security prisons to youth shelters.

As of June 2019, there were 168 registered ORR detention facilities in 23 states, all run by private contractors, some of which are for-profit companies and others are non-profit organizations. The main contractors operating ORR facilities are the non-profit organizations Southwest Key and Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS), publicly-traded company Acadia Healthcare, and private equity-owned Caliburn International.

While the Office of Refugee Resettlement is supposed to reunite children with their family members, it had put parents seeking to reunite with their children at risk of deportation. In June 2018, the Trump Administration began ordering family members reuniting with unaccompanied children in ORR custody to provide personal details including addresses and fingerprints that would be shared with ICE and CBP. By December 2018, ICE arrested 170 sponsors through information shared by ORR. ORR then reversed its policy.

Tent Cities

Prior to 2014, most ORR facilities were small, resembling group homes or youth shelters, and operated by charitable and non-profit organizations. In its first nine years of their operation, ORR facilities detained fewer than 8,000 unaccompanied children annually. Since 2012, an increase in the number of detained unaccompanied children has markedly changed the scale and character of ORR detention, so that ORR detained more than 13,000 children in 2012, more than 24,000 in 2013, and nearly 57,500 in 2014. Due to this sharp increase, children in ORR custody are increasingly being warehoused and caged in large detention facilities operated by a small group of private companies and non-profit organizations, principally: Southwest Key, Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS), and Caliburn International. These facilities, like the Tornillo “tent city”, Casa Padre, and Homestead, have brought national attention to the detention of immigrant youth within ORR and the companies profiting from this industry.

The largest operator in the ORR network, Southwest Key, is a Texas-based non-profit organization that operates over 25 detention facilities across the country and has been involved in the immigrant detention business since the late 1990s. At the peak of the Trump Administration’s “Zero-Tolerance Policy” in May 2018, 41 percent of children separated from their parents were detained in a Southwest Key facility. Between 2015 and 2019, Southwest Key has received contracts worth nearly $2 billion to operate ORR detention facilities. Although immigrant rights activists long viewed Southwest Key as a better alternative to adult prison operators like GEO Group and CoreCivic, the non-profit has sustained increasing criticism for its involvement in family separation. Between 2015 and 2016, during the mass expansion of ORR’s detention capacity, Southwest Key’s CEO Juan Sanchez doubled his salary to nearly $1.5 million dollars. Between 2015 and 2018, there were nearly 250 reports of regulation violations in Southwest Key detention facilities in the state of Texas alone, including abuse, neglect, and inappropriate relationships between children and staff. In 2018, two Southwest Key employees were separately accused of repeated molestation and sexual violence against immigrant youth in Southwest Key facilities.

Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS) is another major non-profit organization operating ORR detention facilities. Between 2015 and 2019, BCFS has received nearly $1.4 billion worth of contracts to operate ORR detention facilities across the country. BCFS has been involved in running some of the most notorious ORR facilities including the Tornillo “tent city” that housed up to 3,800 unaccompanied children in overflow and temporary tent shelters. In November 2018, a report from the Office of the Inspector General revealed that BCFS had failed to perform minimum background checks on its employees and failed to provide adequate mental health care for children at the site. The issues were considered “serious safety and health vulnerabilities” that could pose “substantial risk” to the children in the facility. In January 2019, public pressure and criticism of the facility led BCFS to discontinue the contract and close down the site. In another case in June 2019, BCFS kept unaccompanied immigrant children between the ages of 5 and 12 in a van for 39 hours.

On the same day that BCFS announced its decision to close the Tornillo facility, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the expansion of an ORR facility in Homestead, Florida to make up for the closure. Operated by Caliburn International through its subsidiary Comprehensive Health Services (CHS), the Homestead facility is one of the largest operators and the only for-profit child detention operator in the ORR network. Another Caliburn International subsidiary is the mercenary company Sallyport Global, which operates the notorious Balad Air Force Base in Iraq.

As of June 2019, the Homestead facility could detain nearly 2,500 children. Located on federal land, the facility is exempt from state licensing, child welfare, and state health regulations intended to protect children in government custody. In June 2017 a former Homestead shelter worker was charged and found guilty of illicit sexual activity and exchanging explicit videos with minors at the shelter. In January 2019, Caliburn was issued licenses to operate three new permanent immigrant youth detention facilities in South Texas that could together detain over 600 children. In May 2019, former White House chief of staff John Kelly joined Caliburn’s board of advisors. During his tenure in the Trump administration, Caliburn received $316 million to operate and expand Homestead detention center. On August 3 2019, HHS reported that all unaccompanied children had been transferred from the Homestead facility and that the facility would layoff around 4,400 of the 4,500 staff. Having faced intense public backlash in the months prior, HHS also announced it planned to reduce the number of beds at the Homestead facility from 2,700 to 1,200 beds "in the event of increased referrals". The Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly considering Central Florida, Virginia or the city of Los Angeles as possible sites for future unaccompanied children detention centers. Since March 2018, the Homestead facility has detained over 14,300 unaccompanied children. However there was no clear indication in the initial reports that the Homestead facility would be permanently closed or that CHS would discontinue operating the facility. 

Within these large ORR facilities, children are placed under constant surveillance, offered limited services, and denied adequate health care. For example, reports from Homestead Detention Center describe how children are monitored at all times, even to the bathroom, and how they are banned from physical contact of any kind with other children, including hugs between siblings. Left uncertain of how long they would be detained, children have little contact with the outside world and are only permitted two phone calls a week. There have also been allegations that ORR facility operators fail to provide timely access to basic medical services for infants and young children. In June 2019, the U.S. government further restricted detention services in ORR facilities by cutting all services “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety” of the detained children. This included basic services like English classes and legal aid for asylum-seeking children.

Abuse across the system

Small detention centers with less frequent oversight can also be harmful to the well-being of unaccompanied children. In small ORR facilities like the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, run by a group of counties in Virginia, youth have been allegedly subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and racially motivated physical violence by detention guards. In another ORR facility in Texas run by the non-profit organization Shiloh Treatment Center, immigrant children were reportedly injected with psychiatric drugs without their consent, sexually abused, and punched by caretakers.

In fact, accounts of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect are widespread in the ORR facility network. A ProPublica report in 2018 that documented call logs from over seventy ORR facilities revealed hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse, missing children and physical violence. Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center described ORR facilities as a “gold mine” for sexual predators due to the lack of regulatory oversight and precarious nature of unaccompanied children. Between 2014 and 2018, ORR awarded $1.5 billion to contractors under serious allegations of child abuse and neglect.

In March 2019, it was revealed that ORR was utilizing numerous unregistered facilities to detain children as young as nine years old with “mental health and behavioral challenges.” Some of these clandestine facilities are operated by Acadia Healthcare, one of the largest behavioral health treatment companies in the country, which operates detention centers in the juvenile punishment system and within the ORR network. It is unclear how many unregistered Acadia facilities are within the ORR network. Rolling Hills Hospital in Oklahoma, one of the unregistered Acadia operated facilities uncovered in the investigation, has faced numerous allegations of “sexual harassment and physical abuse”. A 2017 lawsuit accused Acadia’s Rolling Hills facility of permitting sexual abuse of children inside the facility, destroying video evidence and refusing access to state investigators. Unregistered ORR facilities are unregulated and uninspected by the government.

The Family Separation Policy

On April 6, 2018, the Department of Justice issued a “zero-tolerance policy” ordering U.S. Attorneys to criminally prosecute as many people charged with “illegal entry” as possible, regardless of whether they cross alone or with children. Since children cannot be criminally prosecuted or incarcerated in adult facilities, this resulted in the forced separation of over 2,650 children from their parents without a clear path to reunification. While parents were placed into federal custody, separated children were transferred to ORR custody to be detained along with other unaccompanied children.

The process of family separation by CBP and ICE agents and the for-profit companies involved in this industry requires the use of force and deception. Migrant fathers held in the ICE family detention facility in Karnes have sued the operating company GEO Group for using handcuffs and zip-ties to drag away fathers from their children while telling the fathers they would never see their children again. The fathers were then transferred to another detention center for two days, only to be transferred back to Karnes with their children later.

The Policy was reversed on June 20, 2018, and replaced with an attempt by the government to detain families together indefinitely for the duration of their immigration proceedings. A U.S. District Court Judge, however, rejected the possibility of indefinite detention stating it would clearly violate the Flores Agreement’s maximum twenty day detention period for family detention. As of June 2019, at least 100 children have not been reunited with their parents. families are still consistently separated at the border according to immigrant rights advocates and the administration itself.

Although the explicit Family Separation policy was in place for only several weeks, child psychologists and pediatric doctors described the permanent psychological harm that the policy would have had on thousands of children and family members. The American Psychological Association condemned family separation as a threat to “the mental and physical health of both children and their caregivers.” The effects of the violent trauma caused by separation include permanent detachment from family members, delays in reaching developmental milestones, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, and permanent trouble regulating emotions.

More Information about Publicly-Traded Companies

A US healthcare company. Provides community corrections including residential re-entry programs. Has detained small numbers of unaccompanied immigrant youth.

The world’s largest private prison corporation. Owns and manages over 100 correctional, detention, and other residential reentry facilities. Provides the government with other services as part of the criminal punishment system.

The world's 2nd largest private prison company and the largest "community corrections" and e-carceration business. Owns and operates prisons and immigrant detention centers in the US and abroad. Provides the government with other services as part of the criminal punishment system.

This page was last updated on
10 July 2019