Privatized prisons for immigrants: The expansion continues

by Amaury Nora

Since the launch of the “global war on terror,” a large majority of Americans have been encouraged to cower under the pseudo-protective umbrella of a permanent Nation Security State. Last year I wrote several posts about the current prison-industrial complex and the increasing number of privatized prisons being used to house thousands of detained immigrants. The rise of the prison-industrial complex is one the most disturbing things going on in this country. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics – released on June 30, 2006 and revised in July 2007 – there are over 2 million people behind bars in the United States.

At the time of the report, there were about 180,000 in federal custody, 1.2 million in state custody, and 760,000 in local jails. The BJS statistics also reported there were over 90,000 immigrants (both documented and undocumented) who were held over 12 months by three jurisdictions: the Federal system housed 33,701; California housed 15,849; and Texas housed 9,227.

In a recent “year in review” report, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had rounded up more than 30,000 immigrants – doubling the number from last year. According to Detention Watch Network, a D.C. based advocacy group, more than 186,600 immigrants were deported in 2006. However, more disturbingly, in 2007, ICE had detained more than 300,000 immigrants. These frightening statistics only confirm this country’s commitment to lock up an insurmountable amount of people; and the reality of it all, this is an integral part of the globalization of capital.

Prison Construction Continues to Mushroom
Private prisons are changing the face of American incarceration. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like winning the lottery. Analysts say profit margins are higher at detention centers than prisons, according to a 2006 New York Times article. The explosive growth in the detention business has drawn many cities and counties to partner these corporations in exchange for lucrative federal contracts.

Last month, Louisiana-based Emerald Correctional Management LLC made a pitch to the Caldwell Commissioners Court to build a $30 million, 1,000-bed private detention center in Central Texas. The proposed facility would be built between Lytton Springs and Dale, about 30 miles southeast of Austin. ICE would house men and women separately. In November, Homeland Security agreed to pay Los Angles County $51 million to house 1,400 immigrants at the Mira Loma Detention Center, making it the largest facility of its kind in California. According to the contract obtained by the Daily Journal, County officials will charge the Homeland Security $100.09 a day to house a detainee.

One week before Christmas, the city of Aurora, Colorado held a town meeting to debate the proposed plan to expand the existing 400-bed facility, Aurora ICE Processing Center, into a 1,500-bed center, making it the second largest detention center. The largest is located in Raymondville, TX with 2,000-beds. The Aurora ICE Processing Center is run and operated by the Geo Group (formerly known as the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation). According to Geo, the facility can currently hold up to “400 males, females, children (unsentenced).” The detainees being held in the Aurora Processing Center are the immigrants that have been picked up from Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.

In order to defuse the tension that was beginning to build up in Aurora, Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE, made sure to state that ICE had no influence in GEO’s decision to expand their facility and that there is “no guarantee” that ICE would require an additional “1,100 beds at the Aurora facility.”

Recently, the Miami Herald reported on the military’s plan to build a tent encampment to detain up to 45,000 migrants seeking asylum in the event of a Caribbean migrant crisis. Last May, at a cost of $16.5 million, “the Navy hired a Jacksonville contractor to build concrete buildings with 525 toilets and 248 showers on an empty corner” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

This is part of a larger plan by Homeland Security, dubbed “Operation Vigilant Sentry.” Vigilant Sentry is a massive operation that also includes federal, state and local law enforcement agencies “to thwart a mass influx of boat people fleeing political upheaval or natural disaster in the Caribbean.”

According to Reuters, part of the encampment was finished a few years ago. The site can currently “hold up to 400 migrants in tents and cots stored in shipping containers on the base. A barbed-wire fence separates it from a neighboring galley and bar.” Reuters is also reporting that is will cost the federal government $110 million to finish the site.

However, one must be concerned if the Bush administration is planning to replicate Australia’s use of ‘offshore’ processing camps – infamously known as the ‘Pacific Solution’ – to process all asylum claims. Adopted in 2001 by the Howard Government, the ‘Pacific Solution’ was the name given to Australia’s immigration policy to detain all asylum seekers who arrive independently, without permission to offshore detention centers in the Pacific Ocean such as Christmas Island, the tiny island nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island until it can process their asylum requests.

The Pacific Solution has been criticized by human rights groups and by the UN. Asylum-seekers in offshore processing centers had no recourse to the appeals system available in Australia. Part of the policy included mandatory detention for adults and children seeking asylum for the duration of their processing by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). Particular concerns have been expressed by many over the detention of children in Australia’s Immigration Detention Centers. Although the US military did not mention if the new site will also house the children of asylum seekers, one does have to wonder what will happen to the children once the asylum seekers are captured by the Coast Guard.

If so, it would be wise for this government to also take note of the latest developments regarding Australia’s Pacific Solution. During the latter months of 2007, the newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, began dismantling the discredited policy. Rudd confirmed that the detention centers on Manus Island and on Nauru would be closed.

Influencing Incarceration
The private prison industry exerts whatever pressure it can to encourage state legislators to privatize state prisons. The rise of modern prison privatization was based on the notion that government was doing a poor job of incarceration. The phenomenon of private prisons and their corollary industries, private inmate transportation, private inmate food services and private inmate medical services, came into the public eye in the mid-1980s, when the fledgling Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) opened its first detention center in Houston, TX. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now Geo Group), the prison-management division of global security giant Wackenhut Security, entered the market soon after. These developments drew little attention, but this changed in 1985 and 1986 when governments began to contract with private firms to operate secure facilities that functioned as county jails and state prisons.

For too long now, the American public has looked on in despair or resignation as private corporations shape public policies to advance the interests of their industry, often at the expense of the common good. Nearly, 50 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of “a permanent arms industry of vast proportions” in addressing the looming “military-industrial complex.” While the former general was well aware of the military threat posed by the Soviet Union, he also was well aware that war profiteers in the US had their own agendas, too.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

What makes this industry so complex is that it’s comprised of think tanks, former corporate executives, consultants and shareholders of top US defense companies “who profit by manufacturing arms and selling them to the government.” Subsidized by the Complex, pro-war think tanks have become a major force in promoting our current (Afghanistan and Iraq) and upcoming (Iran) wars. Billions of dollars are sent, without hearings and often unquestioned because they’re ostensibly for “defense,” to Congressional districts across the country. This process, of course, fuels incumbent campaigns for re-election.

The fact is that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, march to the drums of US multinational corporations who fund their political careers. As we try to understand the prison-industrial complex, we have to look at all of these pieces together.

Like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex is also driven by a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. One of the principal mechanisms used to advance their cause comes from a little-known organization called the American Legislative Council (ALEC), a conservative public policy think tank with members that include private corporations, trade organizations, and 2,400 state and federal legislators. ALEC’s primary function is to draft model legislation for legislator-members to take back to their home jurisdictions and do their best to turn into law; it’s essentially a forum for corporations and government to “co-author” laws.

In 2000, over 3,100 bills based on ALEC’s model legislation were introduced into legislatures by its members, with 450 such bills signed into law. According to ALEC itself, the most productive of its various divisions is the Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Task Force, which has repeatedly turned its model legislation into real laws. Due in large part to these new industry authored laws, the number of incarcerated Americans has risen dramatically – from 740,000 prisoners in 1985 to more than 2.2 million in 2006. As much as ALEC downplays the corporate benefits accruing from its legislative initiatives, it should come as no surprise that both CCA and Geo Group have been private-sector members of ALEC, and that both have been among its major benefactors of ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force. It is also important to note that CCA executives have co-chaired Criminal Justice Task Force for many years.

It is hard to say what role, if any, CCA and/or Geo Group has played in the drafting and promoting of ALEC-sponsored legislation aimed at expanding our prison population. However, one thing is for certain, each company pays thousands of dollars in annual membership dues for a seat at the drafting table with influential legislators. While some try to downplay the idea that government has been taken over by powerful special interests, the simple fact is that for-profit prison operators need to maintain a steady flow of prisoners in order to prosper.

Politics is the only reason the Bush Administration feels bound to continue with a policy that is demonstrably inhumane and unjust. It has exploited our broken immigration system and manufactured a political crisis by demonizing immigrants. Today, the calculated and ubiquitous use of pejorative rhetorical descriptors define every element of the government’s framing of the immigration issue – “terrorists,” “Muslims,” “illegals,” etc. – a process that only serves to establish a socially accepted discourse around racism and the repression of all people of color, whether they live in the US or not. The prison-industrial complex is profiting from an evil in the US that neither Democrats nor Republicans will seek to remedy.

The corporate will has replaced the will and conscience of the people. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have abdicated their responsibility to their constituencies. How many people must be restrained, denied human dignity and treated as inhuman for society to finally wake up? How many people must be detained under the name of so-called safety and morality for society to finally realize our society is inching toward totalitarianism?

Immigration reform should not lie in an uncompromising policy of deterrence based on detention as a form of collective punishment, but instead on treating those who arrive unlawfully with compassion and justice. Nor does it lie in a draconian system, which is costly and difficult to enforce, but more importantly perpetuates the inhumane elements of a flawed system that has undermined the integrity this country.

It is not in this country’s best interests to deprive people of their dignity and the right to earn a living. This can only reduce them to a state of fragility that will leave them ill-equipped to make sensible decisions about their future. Further, it seriously undermines their integration into society as strong, independent and resourceful citizens with existing and beneficial links to the community.

By definition, human rights are universal; however, by detaining these unfortunate immigrants, this country not only has isolated them from society but also has deemed them unworthy of the most basic human rights. As a result, this country now faces a legal and moral crisis of such monstrous dimensions that it threatens our centuries-old understanding of human rights, of what is fair, humane and just.

There is much to be done to help reunite these people with their families and to heal their fractured minds and broken spirits. Now is the time to demand that this country show the same care and compassion to all immigrants whether they arrive on these shores armed with the relevant visa or not. Seeking a better life is a human right, not a crime.

x-posted on Para Justicia y Libertad

12 replies »

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  2. Great analysis, Edmundo. Here’s the good news, potentially. The Millennials are the most diverse generation in history and they do NOT take well to things they see as racist. So maybe in the coming years we see candidates in both parties coming around on this for the simple reason that they can’t afford to alienate the majority of a 75-100 million-strong voting bloc.

  3. Edmundo wrote: “The fact is that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, march to the drums of US multinational corporations who fund their political careers.”

    I had a professor who once told me what he thought the key to great thinking and writing was: “Articulate the obvious,” he said.

    I don’t know if any of us at S&R has said anything as plain and simple and profound as that observation of yours, Edmundo.

    Thanks for a great piece.

  4. Last year I met a 40 year old Mexican who had just been deported after serving 3 years for having a forged document. He had been living and working in the US for 20 years. All his belongings had been confiscated and he was violently arrested-tv set smashed, thrown to the floor and verbally demeaned. His court appointed lawyer had tried to get him to plead to a more serious identify theft charge. He understood English, fired his attorney and took the lesser plea. He said conditions were horrible in the newly opened abandoned facility. Inmates were given the task of making it livable. It is likely he will never be allowed back in the US (which he said he still loves) to visit his 2 daughters. I fear this is but one of thousands of cased of injustice perpetrated in the effort to maximize corporate profits. Shame on us.

  5. Thanks you both Sam and Jim. Those are kinds words Jim and I am humbled by them. I must admit, I am still a bit intimidated being part of a blog with so many so many great minds. One which continues to set the bar higher when it comes to citizen journalism. I thank y’all for pushing me not to settle for mediocrity.

  6. Scott

    That is horrible. I also fear this person will also not be allowed to see his daughters. Unfortunately, these stories are censored by our media. You might be interested in reading this a letter I received from a reader about the abuse that is taking place over at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

  7. I’m also wondering if a comment I read on Raw Story is true.

    Someone recently posted that they had talked with someone at Gunderson, a railway car manufacturer with headquarters in Oregon and affiliates in Mexico and Canada, who said that the Bush administration (DHS?) had contracted for thousands of special railway cars, with shackles welded to the inside walls.

    I was at first highly skeptical, but then realized that (just like the Nazis) one way to transport large numbers of people without raising much attention would be by using railway cars. I mean, someone would probably notice a large convoy of buses, but who pays attention to passing railway cars, or has really any idea what’s inside each railway car.

    Thus, it wouldn’t surpise me to find out that many of the large number of detention centers (mainly private) that have been built around the country under the Bush/Cheney regime are located beside railway lines, in preparation for hauling a whole lot of illegal immigrants (12 to 15 million) south of the border…in the middle of the night… by rail.

  8. Schneider…the same guy that says:

    “These people are god-less, and have legislated out prayer in public schools. You can get fined up to $100,000 and two years in prison for praying in school. I believe we can do better.”


    “By the way, none of the stealth program would have been available if we had not taken apart crashed alien disks.” ?

  9. Great post, but in the case of prisons, just like the movie “Field of Dreams,” they will fill up because if you build it, they will come.