Carceral Carousel

Publication Date

The prison industrial complex is a highly adaptive mechanism that is constantly shifting to sustain itself. In recent years, the movement against mass incarceration has gained traction in reducing penal incarceration in the United States. In this report in collaboration with the Detention Watch Network, we detail select case examples of jails and prisons that closed for one purpose, only to cage a different group of people. The case studies demonstrate the importance of looking ahead to strategies which ensure that cages remain closed for all carceral uses, once and for all.


Only six days after his inauguration, President Biden issued an executive order to end the use of private prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. While advocates across both criminal and immigration justice movements welcomed this important step, the order fell short in at least one crucial respect. It excluded the largest share of privately operated detention facilities in the federal system: immigration detention centers. This omission paved the way for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take over the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Pennsylvania. Without skipping a beat, the GEO Group, the private prison company that runs Moshannon Valley prison, made immediate plans to begin marketing the prison to ICE. By September of that year, ICE began transferring people to the facility.

In this report, we detail select case examples of jails and prisons that closed for one purpose, only to cage a different group of people. The case studies demonstrate how sustained pressure and community organizing can lead to transformative wins that can help free people. Yet in order for us to truly shrink the size and the reach of the overall system of mass incarceration, the immigrant justice and decarceration movements must strengthen strategic alliances to ensure that jail capacity is reduced and eliminated for good. Because immigration detention is just one piece of the larger web of mass incarceration, and because the systemic criminalization of Black and brown communities is compounded in these overlapping systems, our ultimate success in achieving justice is inextricably linked.

Read the whole report here.

From Criminal System Facilities to Immigration Detention

As support for criminal justice reforms and reducing mass incarceration has gained some momentum, states have sought to reduce prison populations and close some jails. However, those closures have rarely, if ever, meant that the prison facilities would no longer operate as cages. Rather, these closures have paved the way for new expansions of ICE detention.

Read the whole report here.

From Immigration Detention Facilities to Criminal System

Shifting jails from criminal to immigration custody is not the only direction prison recycling goes. The reverse happens too: facilities flip from jailing people in ICE custody to jailing people in state or local criminal custody. When an immigration detention facility closes entirely, or in part, there is a good chance that any space previously used to detain people in immigration custody will be filled by people incarcerated for some other purpose. This frequently happens when local jails have Intergovernmental Service Agreements (IGSAs)15 to rent some or all of their space to ICE. Local jails often sustain their budgets with funds from a blend of both their local governments (to hold people in criminal custody) and from ICE (to hold people in immigration custody).

Read the whole report here.

From Within The Federal System

The federal prison system is made up of facilities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice (DOJ), under which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operates federal prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) contracts for detention of federal defendants who are awaiting trial. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversees ICE and CBP detention. Within the federal system, prison facilities and contracts are regularly recycled between incarcerating people in ICE custody and incarcerating people in federal criminal custody. Many of these individuals are migrants charged with the federal criminal offense of entry and re-entry violations, which means that when a prison flips from federal custody to immigration detention, it is likely to detain some of the very same people, only now in ICE uniforms instead of BOP or USMS uniforms. This highlights the insidious nature of our carceral system and the layers of punishment heaped upon migrants. Several case examples demonstrate why efforts to shut down ICE facilities and federal penal facilities should be bridged.

Read the whole report here.