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America's Corporate Immigrant Detention Racket

Who benefits from immigrants awaiting hearings being locked up in worse conditions than criminal convicts? Only private prisons

Not long after 11 September 2001, Steven Logan, the CEO of Cornell Companies (now part of the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group Inc) had good news for its shareholders. In a quarterly earnings call, Logan enthusiastically talked about tighter border control and a heightened focus on (immigrant) detention in the wake of the attacks. As he put it, "more people are gonna get caught. So I would say that's a positive."The US currently detains more than a third of a million immigrants, pending hearings. (Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

Indeed, for those in the business of caging people for profit, there was something positive to be found in the aftermath of 9/11. With the number of immigrants held in detention each year (pdf) nearly doubling to 363,000, billions of dollars were being generated in revenue. For nearly everyone else – including the immigrants themselves, of course, and the ordinary Americans who are paying the price in more ways than one – this detention binge has been an overwhelming negative.

The ACLU of Georgia recently released a report (pdf) titled "Prisoners for Profit", which examined conditions at four facilities in the state, including the Stewart Detention Center. Stewart is the largest immigrant detention center in the nation, run by the for-profit Correction Corporation of America (CCA.) The report is replete with allegations of abuse, mistreatment and medical neglect, and relates in detail the death of Roberto Medina Martinez, a 40-year-old detainee, who died from what his widow's lawyers claim was a treatable infection.

The report also highlights the disturbing fact that although the majority of immigrants have committed no crime other than not having the right paperwork, they are housed in punitive, prison-like conditions that, in some cases, are worse than those faced by convicted criminals. For instance, detainees are denied any contact visits with their families or loved ones, as a matter of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) official policy. They are allowed only one hour of outdoor recreation five days a week, which is less outdoor time than prisoners in maximum security facilities can expect to get.

The report also cited numerous concerns about cell conditions, including temperature extremes and overcrowding, inadequate food, the rationing of sanitary products for menstruating women and serious problems with healthcare. Detainees report being subjected to verbal and even physical abuse and retaliatory behavior by guards, such as being placed in segregation if they make complaint.

Most concerning, however, were the allegations raised in the report regarding violations of detainees' due process rights. In 2010, fewer than 20% of detainees had any legal representation, a result of inadequate access to a law library and inadequate access to information about pro bono legal services. Those who did have representation reported inadequate visiting conditions (which are often no-contact and monitored), raising serious attorney-client confidentiality issues.

All told, the report painted an ugly picture of what the report editor, Azadeh Shahshahani, describes as the "deep-seated tension between profit-making aims of prison corporations and what the American values of justice and liberty demand".

Needless to say, the CCA – which grossed more than $1.7bn in revenue in 2010 – does not share the ACLU's view that profiting from immigrant detention is a bad thing. The corporation declined to be interviewed for this article, but did issue a statement dismissing the report as "yet another unfortunate example of the lack of seriousness with which the ACLU lawyers approach the very real and practical challenges our nations face in safely, humanely and cost effectively housing our immigrant population."

The CCA also sent along a specific list of denials, which can be read here (pdf), but as its record to date is far from unblemished, it's hard not to take these denials with a large grain of salt. Since 2003, there have been 24 deaths in custody at CCA facilities; detainees have been removed en masse from certain CCA facilities due to allegations of widespread sexual abuse; and the CCA has been obliged to spend millions of dollars settling lawsuits.

The CCA does have a point about the "challenges" of detaining people against their will, however. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a comprehensive report (pdf) on this very issue and came to the conclusion that perhaps "housing" non-criminals awaiting immigration hearings in facilities that were "built, and operate, as jails and prisons" might not be the best approach.

The Obama administration vowed at the time to seek out alternatives to detention programs that would be more cost-effective and humane. If the administration does eventually follow its own recommendations, it will go a long way toward restoring America's reputation as the fabled land of opportunity for immigrants, rather than a land of opportunists who cage immigrants for profit.

So far, however, the detained population remains at a record high. That is something that only the private prison industry can feel positive about.

Interested parties can write to:

Sadhbh Walshe
PO Box 1466
New York, NY 10150

Or send an email to: sadhbh@ymail.com

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