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Members of the South Central Farm attending the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles California on May Day, 2006. The banner, in Spanish, reads "No human being is illegal." (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh / Wikimedia Creative Commons)

'Abuse' and 'Despair' at For-Profit Immigrant Prisons Exposed

ACLU report reveals 'shocking' abuse, solitary confinement, discrimination and other atrocities in Texas facilities

Sarah Lazare

Behind closed doors, in the custody of for-profit prisons, non-U.S. citizens face "shocking" neglect, abuse, mistreatment, discrimination, arbitrary solitary confinement, and family separation, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Tuesday.

The growing "criminalization of immigration," alongside the rise of mass incarceration, has meant windfall profits for the private corporations that operate the 13 Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, which are owned by the Bureau of Prisons and detain over 25,000 non-U.S. citizens in facilities deemed "low security," notes the study.

In 2009, the ACLU launched an investigation of four such CAR prisons located in Texas and collectively hold 14,000 non-U.S. citizens who are federal prisoners, many of whom were convicted of being in the United States while undocumented. In the final report, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System, numerous interviews, site visits, and reviews of official records reveal a litany of atrocities, including:

  • Prison contracts that create incentives for overcrowding and high levels of solitary confinement. "As one prisoner put it, 'anything you do or say' can get a person locked up in conditions of extreme isolation, spending 22 to 24 hours per day confined in a small cell where he must eat, sleep, use the toilet, and sometimes even shower," the report explains. Solitary confinement cells are also used to absorb facility overflow.
  • Racial, ethnic, and homophobic discrimination against people detained, including the use of biased slurs as insults by prison authorities.
  • Inadequate access to medical care.
  • "Prisoners reported severely overcrowded and squalid living conditions," notes the study.

"There is an overwhelming sense of despair at the CAR prisons we visited," notes the report. "Many of the men feel forgotten."

These abuses often occur beyond the scrutiny of the public, without meaningful oversight from federal authorities. Furthermore, the Freedom of Information Act "has not been found to apply to records in the possession of the corporations that run the CAR prisons," notes the study. People displaced from family and friends face exorbitant, and often prohibitive, phone rates just to stay in touch.

"At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in a statement about the report. "The Bureau of Prisons creates perverse incentives for the for-profit prison companies to endanger human health and lives."

In one chilling example of the squalid conditions of life inside these prisons, the report notes:

At Willacy County Correctional Center, most “dormitories” are Kevlar tents that each house about 200 men in bunk beds that are reportedly spaced only a few feet apart. Dante, a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant convicted of reentry, said the tents are dirty and crawling with insects and that the toilets often overflow and always smell foul. “Sometimes I feel suffocated and trapped,” he said. “A lot of people get very upset and angry. Sometimes they become so frustrated that they even speak of burning down the tents. But what’s the point? They’d build them back up.”

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