For Private Prison Industry, Taking A Hard Line On Undocumented Immigration Is Lucrative

Recent allegations claim the federal and state governments sought to increase the number of detainees for the sake of bolstering the industry.
By @FrederickReese |
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    In a corporate video on the company’s website, the founders of Corrections Corporation of America — the largest operator of private prisons in the world — reminisce about how they secured their first contract 30 years ago.

    “We saw this big ol’ sign, ‘Olympic Motel,’ made an offer to lease the motel for four months,” recalled T. Don Hutto, who, along with co-founder Tom Beasley, spoke of how they quickly converted the building to a prison and staffed it with family members.

    On Super Bowl Sunday, “we got our first day’s pay for 87 undocumented aliens,” said Hutto, who processed the prisoners himself.

    Hutto was the former commissioner of corrections for Arkansas and was tasked with “humanizing” the Arkansas Penal System, which was criticized at the time for being the most brutal prison system in the country. Despite this history of public service, it was clear from the start that their venture was not so much altruistic but capitalistic.

    Three years after their first contract in 1983, the company spent about $100,000 to lobby Tennessee for a prison privatization bill — the first step toward achieving revenues of $1.7 billion, a quarter of which came from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    This unnatural relationship between the private prison industry and border control agencies has drawn criticism. Reports of inhumane conditions have surfaced — including lockdowns for minor infractions such as not moving quickly enough or saving a piece of fruit for later. Others have reported a lack of accountability to federal detention standards, abusive treatment of transgender and gay detainees, and deficient health care. The allegations have proliferated, with little response from authorities beyond the occasional promise to “ensure the human rights of all immigrants, documented and undocumented alike.”

    As Congress continues to hammer out legislation that tightens border security, some people question who such proposals actually serve.


    An ‘unnatural relationship’

    “In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced plans to ‘overhaul the U.S. immigration system in an effort to improve detention center management, and prioritize health, safety and uniformity among immigration detention facilities, while ensuring security and efficiency.’ To date, detention reforms have resulted in very little change on the ground, where it matters most,” wrote American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona Executive Director Alessandra Soler Meetze in a 2011 report. “Both state and federal governments continue their aggressive enforcement efforts with little accountability and no effective mechanisms for measuring stated policy goals. Meanwhile, egregious human rights and constitutional violations continue to occur every day in detention facilities across Arizona.”

    However, a sinister twist was added to this story of degradation and exploitation by recent allegations that the federal government and the states sought to increase the number of undocumented immigrant detainees for the sake of bolstering the private prison industry. Currently, ICE contracts private prisons to house border violators in 10 states — Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. As of 2009, ICE housed 49 percent of all detainees — 15,977 in 178 facilities — in private facilities. The cost to house a prisoner, according to the Associated Press’ calculations, is about $166 per day, including salaries.

    In a 2007 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, CCA recognized its dependency on ICE’s detention efforts.

    “We are dependent on government appropriations… The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws,” the filing read.

    This may be the reason the industry’s lobbying efforts have been so intense. A 2012 Associated Press report revealed that the industry’s three largest corporations — CCA, the Geo Group and Management and Training Corp. — spent at least $45 million on lobbying and campaign donations at the state and federal levels, with a large amount of money and attention spent lobbying the federal agencies themselves.

    The private prison industry’s heyday came post-9/11, when the call for additional prison beds was the highest but money for new prison construction was at its lowest due to the economic slowdown that followed the bursting of the tech bubble. President George W. Bush folded the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the newly created Department of Homeland Security, a change he said would serve to “control our borders and prevent terrorists and explosives from entering our country.” The action created a glut of detainees, and the private prison industry sought to capitalize.

    “It’s clear that since September 11th there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and in the U.S.,” said Steve Logan, the chief executive of Cornell Companies Inc., a private prison operator now owned by Geo Group, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “What we are seeing is an increased scrutiny of tightening up the borders. Some of that means that people don’t get through, but the other side of that is more people are going to get caught. So I would say that’s positive.”


    Filling beds

    This, within itself, would be controversial. However, evidence has emerged that the government is seeking to fill private prison beds. In interviews and internal emails, for example, federal officials laid out plans to ratchet up expulsions and arrests for immigrants convicted of minor crimes in an attempt to meet annual performance levels. The tactics included trolling state driver’s license records for duplicate photos, evidence of fraud and foreign-born applicants; assigning ICE agents to routine traffic stops; and processing undocumented immigrants who were booked at local jails for minor infractions.

    The Obama administration has made deportation the central focus of its immigration policy, booting more undocumented immigrants from the country than any other administration before it. For the 2012 fiscal year, ICE deported a record 225,399 immigrants on criminal charges — well beyond the agency’s target of 210,000. Each of these forced deportations are preceded by detention in either a public or private holding facility.

    The administration has stated it will halt the detention of some low-priority immigrants that pose little risk to public safety. This, however, is opposed by some in Congress.  In February, the House Committee on Homeland Security sent a letter to the director of ICE condemning the agency’s release of 2,000 detainees.

    “Congress mandated and provided resources to maintain 34,000 bed spaces for illegal immigrant detainees,” the committee’s letter read. “As of last week, ICE reported 30,733 spaces filled, in clear violation of statute.”

    John Morton, director of ICE, stated in congressional testimony that the detainees were released because the agency was holding more detainees than it could afford to house in the wake of deep budget cuts. The detainees released did not constitute a public threat, he said.

    Many feel that this “monetization” of undocumented immigrant detention has created a system that trivializes the abuse and degradation of an entire class of people for private gain.

    “Homeland Security appropriations language has been interpreted as mandating a daily detention level of 34,000 people, an approach that does not exist in any other law enforcement context,” testified immigration judge Paul Grussendorf in March before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The bed ‘mandate’ distorts agency priorities and results in the unnecessary use of jail detention on people who do not need to be detained, and it makes any meaningful discretion and prioritization in immigration enforcement impossible.”

    “Detention is a costly way for the government to ensure appearances at immigration proceedings and protect public safety. Legislation should permit judges to consider alternatives to detention for individuals who are vulnerable or pose little risk to communities, and to consider in each case whether continued detention is necessary and lawful. Legislation should also specify a clear timeframe within which ICE must make its decision whether to formally charge a noncitizen after arrest. Detainees often languish in detention with no hearings scheduled in their cases because charging documents have not been served on them or filed with the immigration court,” Grussendorf continued.

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