The Dignity Not Detention Act: Ending Profit From Immigration Detention 

Molly Ewing*1

I. Introduction

As home to Ellis Island and the diverse descendants of the migrants who passed through its doors, New York has long been considered one of the most welcoming cultural centers in the United States. Immigrants comprise more than twenty-two percent of the state’s population2 and more than one quarter of its workforce.3 In 2022, New York City saw a dramatic increase in asylum seekers, with more than 42,000 arriving between Spring 2022 and the end of January 2023.4 Government and ICE officials have detained many asylum seekers in private detention centers, often under inhumane conditions.5 The rate of immigration detention and the number of detention facilities have increased in the past decade: in 2007, there were nineteen immigration detention facilities in New York State,6 but that number rose dramatically to seventy-six in 2018.7 ICE is detaining an increasing number of asylum seekers in private facilities in particular. Private detention centers profit from the practice of detention of immigrants. Private for-profit detention facilities are unethical because they profit off of the inhumane detention of immigrants.

The Dignity Not Detention Act8 was first introduced in the New York State Assembly in 2017 and again in 2019. The Bill seeks to ban private immigration detention in New York to prevent the state from profiting off immigrant detention.9 New York, through previous legislation, has made it clear that it does not support profiting off the detention of individuals, so immigration detention should be no different. This Note will argue that the Dignity Not Detention Act should be passed, by exploring previous precedents in New York law and inhumane private treatment in detention facilities.

II. The Introduction of the Dignity Not Detention Act

The Dignity Not Detention Act, introduced by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Karines Reyes, seeks to prohibit state government entities, businesses, or individuals from profiting off the detention of immigrants.10 The Act specifically provides that any government officer or agent shall not receive payment related to the detention of individuals in immigration detention facilities.11 The Act states that individuals who have a current agreement with an immigration detention facility operated in whole or in part by a private entity shall have ninety days to terminate the contract.12 Currently, in New York State, the detention centers of Chautauqua, Clinton, Orange, and Rensselaer Counties have ongoing contracts with ICE to hold individuals for federal immigration purposes.13 These facilities, under government service agreements with ICE, detain an average of ninety people each night.14 Further, there are additional New York jails with contracts with ICE that do not currently have immigration detainees.15 The Dignity Not Detention Act would cease current and future contracts that hold immigrants in detention centers in New York while also banning privately owned detention centers from operating in the state. The Act explicitly prohibits the ownership or operation of an immigration detention facility within the state by any person or business, thereby making it clear that profiting from immigration detention will not be tolerated.16

Similar legislation has been passed in New Jersey,17 the first East Coast state to implement such legislation. New Jersey Senate Bill 3361 prohibits state-run and private correctional facilities from entering into or renewing contracts with ICE to detain noncitizens.18 This bill is similar to the proposed Dignity Not Detention Act in New York, as it affirms that payments related to the detention of immigrants are strictly prohibited.

As of 2015, nine out of the ten largest detention centers were owned and operated by private companies.19 This Note will proceed to address the issues that privately owned detention centers create, such as inhumane and unethical treatment of individuals. Private detention centers fail to meet the basic necessities of detainees and seek profit over all else.

III. New York State Precedent

A. New York Private Prison Ban; S1015 (2007)

Previous legislation indicates that New York opposes the idea of individuals, private businesses, or government agencies from profiting off imprisonment or detention. In 2007, New York State, with the hope of ending for-profit incarceration, passed Assembly Bill 4484-B, which banned private prisons.20 The memorandum supporting the bill stated that private prisons are “hungry, bottom-line adventurers [that] appear ready to take the public money.”21 The bill similarly describes how some private immigration detention centers may profit from mass incarceration. In 2016, for example, nearly three-quarters of immigration detainees were held in facilities operated by private prison companies, earning millions of dollars in revenue.22 The prison contractors that control many of the major immigration detention centers spend millions of dollars lobbying for policies that favor detention.23 Immigration detention has long been an opportunity for gain and profit for private prison companies. Orange, Clinton, and Rensselaer Counties all receive payment for every individual detained by ICE.24 The Dignity Not Detention Act expands the previous private prison ban and would uphold New York’s commitment to dismantling prison profit.

More recently, Senator Brian Benjamin of New York sponsored Senate Bill 5433-A, prohibiting state-chartered banking institutions from financing or investing in private prisons.25 The Bill passed along partisan lines in the New York Senate in 2020, further demonstrating New York’s efforts to eliminate for-profit incarceration and detention. Passing the Dignity Not Detention Act would align with previous state legislation and previous precedent that make it clear that profit of any size from detention is unjust. The Act is the next step the state should take to further regulate private prisons and detention facilities for immigrants in New York State.

IV. Inhumane Conditions 

Conditions inside privately operated detention facilities are extremely concerning and often go unaddressed. In recent decades, there has been a substantial increase in human rights abuses and inhumane conditions in immigration detention centers.26 Private detention centers that profit from immigration detention create a higher risk of inhumane treatment and unbearable conditions as the detention populations increase.27 The vast majority of detention centers contracted through ICE are run by private prison companies that may prioritize profits over humane treatment of incarcerated people.28 When these detention centers prioritize profits, they do so while neglecting the health, safety, and human rights of those in detention.29 A study conducted by the Detention Watch Network reviewed complaints from forty-two individuals held in privately operated detention centers, and outlined several human rights violations and inhumane conditions.30 Seventy-six percent of these complaints involved inadequate medical treatment and extensive delays in critical care for individuals in detention.31 Critical delays or inadequate treatment are becoming increasingly fatal in detention centers: in 2016, at a center in Colorado, Evalin-Ali Mandza died after officials waited nearly an hour to transfer him to an emergency room after he complained of severe chest pains.32 In addition to medical maltreatment, detainees in private facilities have reported verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse from staff members.33 Facilities have often resorted to placing individuals in solitary confinement as a consequence of making harassment complaints or of overcrowding.34 Solitary confinement, especially in unwarranted cases where the detainee is punished for making complaints, is harsh and severe, leaving detainees with lasting trauma.35 Privately owned detention centers neglect the health and safety of the individuals. Budget cuts and understaffing have caused delays in treatment for emergencies but also routine medical care for detainees.36 Detainees have found themselves waiting hours for treatments and services during medical emergencies.

Although New York has passed N.Y Bill A-4484-B and other legislation, state facilities are no different, providing dangerous, unsanitary, and abusive conditions. In 2021 at the Rensselaer County jail—where, as of September 2021, five immigrant women were detained—numerous complaints were filed regarding filthy living conditions, clogged toilets, broken utilities, and limited access to hygiene products.37 Additionally, medical neglect in New York immigration facilities continues to be a problem. For example, COVID-19 outbreaks were common, as correctional officials failed to maintain social distancing practices or wear proper personal protective equipment.38 Furthermore, between 2017 and 2019, according to an Orange County Sheriff’s Office report, the number of reported sexual assaults more than doubled.39 New York’s ICE detention facilities have persisted in infringing upon personal rights, neglecting to provide medical attention, and perpetuating abusive conditions. The New York state government should end contracts and relationships with these neglectful and abusive private prison contractors by passing the Dignity Not Detention Act.

V. Conclusion

New York has the opportunity to join the growing list of states ending ICE detention and affirming the rights and freedoms of those seeking asylum by passing the New York Dignity Not Detention Act. New Jersey, Illinois, California, and Washington have all passed similar legislation that cuts ties with ICE.40 New York counties are unjustly profiting from the detention of immigrants, and these profits come at a high cost. Private detention centers are characterized by inhumane conditions, with officials frequently failing to provide adequate care and exhibiting high rates of abuse and neglect. The Dignity Not Detention Act continues along these lines. New York demonstrated its stance against profiting from detention by abolishing private prisons in the state more than a decade ago. As such, it is imperative that immigration detention centers are not exempted from this principle.

  1. *B.A. Candidate for Political Science and International Studies, Fordham College at Rose Hill, Class of 2025.
  2. Eddie A. Tavaras, New York Needs Pro-Immigrant Policies to Bolster its Population and Economy, FWD.US (Feb. 17, 2023),, leaving%20the%20state%20than%20entering.
  3. New Americans in New York, American Immigration Council 2 (2023), (data from 2021).
  4. Fisayo Okare, What Mayor Adams Said About Asylum Seekers in his State of the City Address, Documented (Jan. 27, 2023),
  5. Castle et al., Cruel by Design: Voices of Resistance From Immigration Detention, Center for Constitutional Rights (Feb. 2022),
  6. Abigayle Erickson et al., Behind Bars in the Empire State: An Assessment of the Immigration Detention of New Yorkers, Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative 5 (Mar. 11, 2019),
  7. Leanna Garfield et al., Migrant Detention Centers in the US are Under Fire for their ‘Horrifying’ Conditions—and there’s at Least One in Every State, Insider (July 5, 2019),
  8. New York Dignity Not Detention Act, S. 306, 246th Leg., Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2023).
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id. § 3.
  12. Id.
  13. Erickon et al., supra note 6, at 8.
  14. TRAC Immigration, Detention Facilities Average Population (Apr. 4, 2023)
  15. Erickon et al., supra note 6, at 8.
  16. S. 306 § 3.
  17. An act concerning correctional facilities and supplementing Title 30 of the Revised Statutes, A. 5207, 219th Gen. Assemb., 2d Reg. Sess. (N.J. 2021) (codified at N.J. Rev. Stat. § 30:4-8.15 to 8.16).
  18. S. 306 § 3.
  19. Livia Luan, Profiting from Enforcement: The Role of Private Prisons in U.S. Immigration Detention, Migration Policy Institute (May 2, 2018),
  20. An act to amend the correction law, in relation to custody and supervision of persons in state and local correctional facilities, A. 4484-B, 230th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2007) (codified at N.Y. Correct. Law §§ 120-21).
  21. See Memorandum in Support of A. 4484-B, New York State Assembly (2023),
  22. Luan, supra note 19.
  23. Id.
  24. Amy Belsher & Kaye Dyja, New York Jails are Conspiring with ICE to Abuse Immigrants, New York Civil Liberties Union (May 2, 2023),
  25. An Act to amend the banking law, in relation to prohibiting state chartered banking institutions from investing in and providing financing for private prisons, S. 5433-A, 242nd Leg., Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2019).
  26. Luan, supra note 19.
  27. Mary Small, A Toxic Relationship: Private Prisons and U.S. Immigration Detention, Detention Watch Network 2 (Dec. 2016),
  28. Sharita Gruhberg, How For-Profit Companies are Driving Immigration Detention Policies, Center for American Progress 3 (Dec. 2015),
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Id.
  32. Id. at 4.
  33. Id. at 5.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. US: Immigration Policy Harms Women, Families, Human Rights Watch (June 24, 2009),
  37. Kenneth Crowe, Complaint Alleges ‘Filthy Living Conditions’ for Immigrants at Local Jail, Time Union (Sept. 21, 2021),
  38. InformNY, Chautauqua County Jail Continues to See COVID-19 Outbreak, Nexstar Media Group (Dec. 18, 2020),
  39. See Memorandum from James M. Potter, Captain, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, to Carl E. DuBois, Sheriff, Prison Rape Elimination Act Coordinator’s Annual Report – 2017 (Dec. 27, 2017),; Memorandum from James M. Potter, Captain, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, to Carl E. DuBois, Sheriff, Prison Rape Elimination Act Coordinator’s Annual Report – 2019 (Dec. 28, 2019),
  40. Simon Romero, All Over U.S., Local Officials Cancel Deals to Detain Immigrants, N.Y. Times (June 28, 2018),