The nation’s detention system for illegal immigrants will be overhauled in an effort to improve medical care, increase accountability and reduce costs, federal officials announced Thursday.

The current system, a patchwork of about 350 privately run detention centers and county jails that lease space to the government, has come under fire from groups such as Amnesty International USA. The groups say the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency violates due-process rights and provides poor medical care that has sometimes resulted in inmate deaths.

Today, the Department of Homeland Security announced changes to detention policies that have been in place since 2006. According to the New York Times:

“Details are sketchy, and even the first steps will take months or years to complete. They include reviewing the federal government’s contracts with more than 350 local jails and private prisons, with an eye toward consolidating many detainees in places more suitable for noncriminals facing deportation – some possibly in centers built and run by the government.”

It is hard not to be encouraged by the changes that Mr. Morton outlined this week. They could be the first steps in a long journey away from insanity. We will never finally get there, of course, without a wholly reformed immigration system — one that has enough visas for workers to enter legally, one that allows the undocumented to pay their debt to society and live openly as neighbors and citizens. In a system like that, it will become utterly unnecessary to catch and lock up 400,000 people a year.

Regardless of their legal status, immigrants deserve a fair shot at justice once they are in this country. That’s especially true for the most vulnerable, those in detention and facing deportation. All too often, however, they are denied justice and basic due process.

One toxic remnant of one of the Bush administration’s failed wars — the one on illegal immigrants — is immigration detention. Wanting to appear tough, Bush officials cobbled together, at great speed and expense, a network of federal centers, state and county lockups and private, for-profit prisons. They needed lots of beds to warehouse the tens of thousands of people its raiders and local police were flushing out of the shadows.

The results were ugly.

Today, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced two bills which seek to improve deplorable conditions in immigration detention and prevent U.S. citizens from being locked up by mistake.S. 1550, the “Prevent Detainee Deaths and Abuse Act” and S. 1549, the “Protect Citizens from Unlawful Detention Act,” would drastically improve the plight of detained immigrants and even U.S. citizens. These bills would require that immigration jails meet minimum standards like ensuring that U.S. citizens aren’t mistakenly detained, children are considered for humanitarian release, and detainees have access to adequate medical care and legal counseling. These are pretty basic standards, but ones that our Bush-era enforcement regime have consistently failed to meet, and the Obama Administration hasn’t acted on either.

What’s that line about things getting worse before they get better? We can only hope (oh, wait, someone already owns that one…) or should I say, make the case loudly, that this is the case over at DHS. Nina Bernstein of the New York Times reports this week that the Department of Homeland Security, led by Janet Napolitano, has declined to make the growing detention industry in the United States legally accountable. The good news today: “Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-MA), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took action today to reform the Department of Homeland Security’s ever-growing immigration detention system.”

Watch Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) give a a one-minute floor speech today on the urgent need to reform our immigrant detention policies and our nation’s currently unjust immigration system. Rep. Polis is quickly becoming a strong and passionate champion for real, humane, and sensible immigration reform. Watch it:

Here’s the latest blatant example of the system’s decadence, from a piece in the New York Times on immigration detention, entitled, “Piecing Together an Immigrant’s Life the U.S. Refused to See.” It details the untimely death of Tanveer Ahmad in a substandard immigration jail: “When the 43-year-old man died in a New Jersey immigration jail in 2005, the very fact seemed to fall into a black hole…”