Released 13 June 2015  By Melanie Diaz and Timothy Keen - Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
In February 2015, a large-scale prison uprising broke out at the Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas. The detention center has experienced riots like this in the past over several other issues, such as inadequate health services, inhumane conditions, and sexual abuse.[i] However, the grievances that sparked this most recent uprising are representative of a larger and more elusive epidemic. The covert and insidious world of the prison industrial complex (PIC) is witnessing the rise of for-profit prisons largely devoid of oversight and regulatory measures, allowing rampant human rights abuses to persist.[ii] Unfortunately, events that took place in Raymondville are far from isolated incidents under this new paradigm.[iii] Operating in the shadows of U.S. bureaucracy, private prison corporations (PPCs) have garnered an infamous reputation for profiting from the government-subsidized business of immigrant detention. Due to this, for-profit prison corporations lobby extensively and provide exorbitant political contributions so that Congress will appropriate more money into immigration enforcement, fueling the revenue of the PIC.
How It Works
The increased detention rate of undocumented immigrants in the United States is primarily caused by a cyclical process occurring between three main actors: government agencies, private prison corporations (PPCs), and Congress. Each of these entities play their own role in adding to the existing problem, but together they create a cycle that is difficult to break. While Congress passes anti-immigration legislations, government agencies enforce these laws and contract with PPCs to facilitate an increasing number of federally convicted detainees. In return, PPCs, whose profits are dependent on the number of incarcerated individuals, rely on lobbying efforts to influence Congress into passing laws and appropriating spending to increase strict immigration policies.[iv] These efforts allow PPCs to reap better financial deals from contracts with government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which enforce the anti-immigration laws passed by Congress.[v] These combined factors cause incarceration rates to skyrocket, thus making PPCs the ultimate winner in this deceptive cycle that hinders progressive immigration reforms and the promotion of immigrant rights.
The Role of ICE
The government agency responsible for the enforcement of immigration laws is the Bureau of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), organized under the DHS. According to ICE’s website, the agency’s mission is to identify, apprehend, detain, and remove “criminal aliens and other removable individuals located in the United States.”[vi] In 2005, however, the DHS launched its zero-tolerance Operation Streamline policy, making it a federal crime for undocumented immigrants to enter and re-enter the United States. This immigration policy, which criminalizes more immigrants than before, is one of the primary reasons for the rise in detention rates. Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) and former President of the Latin American Studies Association, describes the anti-immigration laws throughout the early 1990s as “prevention through deterrence,” and Operation Streamline is just a later policy of this same tactic.[vii]
ICE is attempting to deter immigrants from coming to the United States by criminalizing undocumented entry, and housing migrants in detention centers. The United States has even detained immigrants seeking refugee status, which is an act that is highly controversial in the public arena. The Artesia Detention Center, for example, housed 287 families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2014.[viii] These families were completely made up of mothers and children (no men at all), totaling to 603 people.[ix] Not only is it an international abnormality for children immigrants to face detention, but it is also extremely difficult for these women and children to receive separate hearings to determine their refugee status. Finally, the result of ICE’s attempts to increase the number of detained people is the predictable over-crowding of its own facilities. Therefore, ICE has begun to reach out to PPCs in search of a solution.
How PPCs Benefit
PPCs are a growing industry that recognizes increasing border patrol as a method to secure immigrant detention rates and thus increase their profits. Between 1990 and 2010, the private prison industry in the United States increased by 1600 percent. Annually, PPCs earn about $3 billion USD, with over half of the profit coming from facilities holding undocumented immigrants.[x] In the United States, there are currently 13 privately-operated “Criminal Alien Requirement” (CAR) prisons, with the five in Texas housing almost 14,000 immigrant prisoners altogether in July 2014.[xi] The two biggest corporations running these private prisons are the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates 67 prisons in the United States, and the GEO Group, which operates 95 in the United States and abroad in countries such as the United Kingdom.[xii] These PPCs do not work alone, though. Government agencies often provide the companies with contracts in order to reduce their costs, and over the years, the amount of the public-private contracts have only increased. For example, in 2005, the GEO Group received $33.6 million USD from ICE contracts and CCA received $95 million USD.[xiii] However, by 2012, these ICE contracts had risen to $216 million USD and $208 million USD, respectively.[xiv]
While these contracts allow PPCs a great deal of financial advantage to run their facilities, cost cutting is a common profit-saving tactic, which oftentimes results in inadequate inmate living conditions. For example, despite annual revenues of $1.4 billion USD in 2012, the GEO Group has been criticized for its cost-cutting practices that have created issues, such as insufficient wages and benefits for workers, poor oversight of prisoner maltreatment, and prisoner riots.[xv]
Less Accountability with PPCs
Contracting with PPCs for detention facilities, however, is an issue because they are not held accountable to the same regulations that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a government agency that manages federally-operated prisons, sets for public prison facilities[xvi] It has been reported that some PPCs hide behind “trade secrets” and their private status in order to avoid publicizing documents.[xvii] This loophole in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967, a federal law allowing for disclosure of governmental documents, allows PPCs to run regardless of human rights abuses that they fail to report to the public due to their fear of budget cuts. For instance, an Amnesty International (AI) report sheds light on the human suffering that is oftentimes found in PPCs, with abuses ranging from malnourishment to a lack of medical assistance for inmates.[xviii] AI also reports high levels of sexual harassment of transgender people who are oftentimes sentenced to long-term solitary confinement due to the lack of better safety precautions.[xix] Yet, despite these human rights violations, the private prison industry continues to operate largely unrestrained as a result of a lacking transparency and ability to circumvent regulatory measures.
However, there have been numerous attempts by Congress to introduce legislation that adds more transparency and accountability to the activities of PPCs. Yet despite the fact that a public-private partnership is still subject to the disclosure laws within FOIA, PPCs have suspiciously lacked in transparency. Legislation changes have repeatedly been put forth to Congress, without success, to cancel PPCs’ usage of FOIA’s loopholes.[xx] This consistent failure is possibly due to PPCs’ lobbying efforts, with CCA spending over $7 million USD on transparency legislation prevention maneuvers since 2005.[xxi]
Another issue with private prisons is that, oftentimes, these prisons are strategically located in rural and isolated areas in an effort to restrict detainees from proper access to due process. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that immigrant detainees often suffer from a lack of headway on their immigration cases due to the prisons’ geographical isolation in towns that are too small and underdeveloped to have sufficient lawyers present.[xxii] In addition to this, two recent Supreme Court rulings further restrict access to proper litigation in cases of prisoner maltreatment and abuse. The Correctional Services Corp. vs. Malesko (2001) ruled that private prison companies cannot be subject to and are not liable to violations of constitutional rights.[xxiii] More recently, Minecci vs. Polard (2012) ruled that individual private prison guards could no longer be held accountable for violating prisoners’ constitutional rights so long as the guards are following state laws.[xxiv] These Supreme Court rulings therefore justify and allow private corporations to act more autonomously, with less judicial oversight or accountability.
(....Continue Part Two)