A Scourge on Progress: Prisons for Profit


Mixing entrenched government bureaucracy with private profits is never a good idea, especially when imprisoned humans are the source of that profit. I speak of prisons run by private sector corporations for profit. But this becomes downright insidious when these private prisons house humans who are not there for a crime, but for simply being in the United States without status. Immigrants that are housed in immigrant detention centers(both private and public) are diverse; they range from permanent residents, undocumented who crossed the border without authorization, undocumented whose visas have expired, former criminal immigrants,  all the way to our very own citizens. According to this site, there are currently around 30,000 immigrants detained throughout a ragtag bunch of facilities spread throughout the United States.

Let something be absolutely clear: none of these 30,000 immigrants are in prison because of a crime. Yes, many have been convicted of crimes, but they all have served the time given to them by the U.S. justice system. In other words, but for them being immigrants, they would be free and amongst the U.S. populous. All are mostly in prison because they are waiting to have their hearing in Immigration Court on whether they can remain here, which can me a multi-year process. Furthermore, half of the detained immigrants have no criminal record at all, and even those that do, it is often of the non-violent variety.

Diminished Rights

30,000 living, breathing, human beings are sitting in a jail cell because they have no recourse to being there because they are not citizens. Why? Because unlike defendants in a criminal matter, immigrants are not entitled to an attorney. The Supreme Court decided this because of the dubious conclusion that “Deportation” is not a form of punishment and therefore there is not a sufficient due process concern to justify such a public expenditure. If deportation was an  efficient, just process, the Supreme Court’s decision stands on firmer ground. Yet it is clearly not, for if it was, 30,000 people would not be rotting in jail. Prison is a clear, irrefutable form of punishment, regardless of the”motivation” behind it. If it is not punishment, make these “prisons” into five-star resorts. That is not on the horizon, as is clear from the unacceptable privately-run immigration prisons.

GEO Group is one of the corporations that runs for-profit immigration detention facilities. On visiting their website(linked above), immediate suspicion is raised when their origin is explained:

GEO began its partnership with the Federal government in 1987 with the award of the Aurora ICE Processing Center for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Since then, GEO has provided operations and management solutions to over 17,500 detainees for federal corrections agencies in the US, South Africa and the United Kingdom. (emphasis added)

First of all, GEO lies about its origin–it states it was was awarded the Aurora ICE processing center in 1987, when it is a known fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) was not created until 2003. Second, GEO fails to disclose who, exactly, these 17,500 detainees are. A reasonable explanation of this lack of disclosure is that GEO does not want to say the less-than-noble truth–that it makes money off of imprisoning non-criminal immigrants.  GEO owns and operates four immigration detention centers with a total capacity to hold  3,341 individuals. Therefore, it’s a neat 19% of their claim of 17,500 detainees world wide.  The other major prison for profit corporation is the the accurately named Corrections Corporations of America(CCA), which owns and operates five immigration detention centers with a total capacity of 4,415, about 6% of their claimed 75,000 detainees world wide. GEO and CCA aren’t running these prisons for any other reason than making a profit, and a handsome one at that.

In 2009,  GEO and CCA, respectively, earned $66 and $155 million dollars in profits. A significant portion of their profits is created by undocumented immigrants. Therefore, it is in their interests to maintain  a component of the engine to their profit, illegal immigration. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend whatever they want on candidates for election, the conflict of interest to the public becomes dangerous. This is so because any type of comprehensive immigration reform(on both the tea party and pro-cir side) would likely decrease the number of immigrants that can be detained. This must be stopped. ACLU’s Jennie Gainesborough sums the problem up well: “[There is a] basic philosophical problem when you begin turning over administration of prisons to people who have an interest in keeping people locked up.”

Alarming Abuse

Over the last couple of years, damning evidence of  prisoner abuse at GEO and CCA immigration prisons has been exposed to the public. The abuse did not end at the private sphere; it occured in government-run detention centers as well.

The Houston Chronicle covered one such atrocious abuse at the hands of a GEO-run prison:

Luis Dubegel-Paez, a 60-year-old Cuban immigrant, lay on the floor of Rolling Plains Detention Center with no pulse, his face flushed, his pupils dilated…

For months before he collapsed at the detention center near Abilene, he had been complaining to nurses about chest pain and heart problems, asking to see a doctor…

it was only after Dubegel-Paez collapsed and died in March 2008 that ICE’s inspectors noted in a report that medical care for about 500 detainees at the facility was being provided only by eight vocational nurses with minimal nursing or physician supervision.”

The detention watch network reported on deaths occurring at CCA-run facilities:

Three people have died at Otay Mesa[CCA-owned] since 2003, including Yusif Osman, 34, a Ghanian man who died in his cell in 2006 after complaining of chest pain.

They further stated that:

According to ICE, 71 people have died in the agency’s custody since the beginning of 2004. Of these, 57 were in contract facilities that ranged from private detention centers to county jails, raising questions about whether a lack of government oversight played a part.(emphasis added)

It’s not too hard to see why privately run facilities are more poorly equipped to care for prisoners than its government counterparts–cutting costs and thus quality means more profits. Furthermore, private companies are more adept at covering up abuses. For example, they can hide things from ICE, and the latter can claim: “well, we looked, didn’t see anything wrong; it was not our fault.” Yet it is just as much the government’s fault as it is the private corporations’

Appalling Rules at the Stewart Detention Facility

Although, on the whole, most immigrants held at privately run immigration detention facilities do not face the horrid ends that have been largely documented by the national press, their mere presence in such a restrictive prison environment for committing no crime is eerily reminiscent of hard line regimes in the world, such as Cuba, that imprison their right-less citizens for illusory crimes.

I went to CCA’s website and laid eyes upon the visitation rules for their Stewart Detention Facility.

Here are some of them:

c. Detainees are not allowed to have contact with visitor.

j. Children & stepchildren of detainee must poses positive identification (birth certificate) when arriving at the facility.

k. All visitors 16 years of age and older must have a valid US Government ID or Passport. Persons without proper identification will not be permitted to visit.

I am well aware that in a prison environment, regardless of whether the impending punishment is deportation or more prison time, the risk of escape or violence looms. Yet, these rules go over the top in precautions for prisoners that, for the most part, either have no criminal history or are non-violent offenders.(driving without a license, petty theft, etc). If there are truly dangerous offenders(though they would be free if they weren’t immigrants, anyway), then separate them.

Seriously,having a no-contact policy for someone that has done nothing except cross a border without the U.S. government’s permission is inhumane and insidious; they can’t hug or kiss their children, spouses, grandchildren, or even a good friend.

And the above rule will not even be applicable to the detainee if their children are here without U.S. permission. If a 12 year or younger detainee’s child visits with a non-U.S. birth certificate; they may be detained, or not. It depends on who the ICE person on charge is that day. Generally, it detention is not the preferred choice for children because it is not good for PR.

But, if the person is over 16, and undocumented, they will not be able to see their mother/father /child. Apparently, it is too much to ask to allow family members to support each other in an extremely difficult time in their lives. Shame on the Stewart Detention Center and our Government, and I don’t say that lightly, especially in light of the recent condemnation the U.S. has directed towards Cuba for its treatment of political prisoners.

The Parrallel

I have written recently about the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban political prisoner that died after an 86 day hunger strike, in protest of the conditions he faced in Cuba’s prisons. The U.S. Department of State published a condemnation of Tamayo’s death:

“On Tuesday, February 23, 2010, prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died following an eleven-week hunger strike. We are deeply saddened to learn of his death…Mr. Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death highlights the injustice of Cuba’s holding more than 200 political prisoners who should now be released without delay.”

Immigrants are in prison in the U.S.  for a similar reason that political dissidents are in Prison in Cuba; they both 1) have minimal to no rights and 2) are being punished for an offense that has no attached moral component. In other words, emotionally-blind government policy deems it necessary to imprison them even if, objectively, the prisoners have done nothing to warrant that imprisonment. Today, I am ashamed of my government. You should be too. Demand an end to Immigration Detention except in the extremest of circumstances. (i.e. very dangerous by a non-biased standard). A prudent alternative, brought up by Marisa Trevino at Latina Lista, is most likely more cost-effective and a whole lot more humane: electronically monitor non-criminal detainees.

Start by E-mailing the public relations officer of the Stewart Detention Center, asking him to end the restrictive visitor rules that I mentioned earlier in this post: Christopher Hobbs. christopher.hobbs@correctionscorp.com


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