Every Time a Gavel Slams a Prison Goes “Ka-ching!”

[Source: The Rearguard]

Written by: Crystal Contreras

Private, for-profit correctional institutions rely on a steady stream of immigrants to keep their wallets fat with taxpayer money

So what is a private prison anyway?

Since the 1970s, the once-puny private prison industry has grown into a hearty, broad-chested system of correctional facilities operating in 30 states. Corporations that run prisons for profit receive billions of dollars in government contracts to house detainees primed for deportation.  These companies strive to bring you correctional facilities with the same quality of service you have come to expect from your local federally operated prison, but at a more affordable cost. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group are the two largest private prison operators in the United States.  The companies were founded in 1983 and 1984, and are pillars of an industry that has increased by more than 350% in the last 15 years, thanks in part to its active lobbyists with a flair for promoting immigrant detentions.

What’s Reagan got to do with this?

Everything. Reagan liked to do things in private, and in 1987 he enacted Executive Order # 12607-the President’s Commission on Privatization. The Commissions’ report claimed that contracting out the operations of government-controlled enterprises, like prisons, was a solution that would increase savings and improve quality. The report goes on to suggest exploring privatization efforts in detention services, while at the same time admitting that little research has been done comparing the costs and conditions between privately-run and federally-run facilities.   This, along with promoting innovation, encouraging competition, and reducing the role of government is a common argument made by supporters of privatization.  Also, presumably because their bottom line would be at stake, companies would be motivated to run efficiently, although there is mixed evidence supporting these ideas.

During this time Reagan turned up the gas in the War on Drugs, contributing to dramatic spikes in incarceration rates and disproportionately jailing people of color. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 brought new mandatory minimum sentences into this mix, which fueled the need for more prison facilities. This demand continued into the next decade with the widespread enactment of “three strikes” laws and other measures meant to reduce and discourage crime.

What else do they have to offer?

While Oregon has yet to dabble in the private prison industry, the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, is run by GEO Group for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The center was opened in 2004 and houses detainees who come primarily from Mexico, Vietnam, Guatemala, Honduras, India, El Salvador, and China. Amongst the abuses listed in a 2008 report from the Seattle University School of Law, Voices of Detention:  Report on Human Rights Violations at Northwest Detention Center, are incidents of people in the center who have been denied medical attention, female inmates who have been subjected to repeated strip searches, food poisoning outbreaks and, thanks to lack of translation services, there are plenty of instances where inmates were forced to sign paperwork they did not understand. In order to accommodate the increasing numbers of detainees, oftentimes residents are transported to other facilities far away, where contact with family and legal assistance is next to impossible.

How did they get there?

On June 12th 2007, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted a massively dehumanizing raid in North Portland, sweeping up more than 160 people employed as fruit cutters. NWDC made room for them in the days prior by transporting a large number of detainees to facilities in Alabama. This incident had a devastating effect on the community, as these things often do. Teachers recounted how their students were curious as to where their classmates had gone and many children were worried that they would be taken too, including those who were citizens. In 2008, nearly 400 workers were arrested in Postville, Iowa, in the biggest workplace immigration raid in US history, setting the town on a course toward financial ruin, dividing families, and sending indebted and unemployed workers back to their cities of origin, mainly in Guatemala.  These are just a couple of examples of the many raids that have been happening in homes and workplaces all over the United States. In spite of the fact that being in a country without proper visas is only a civil offense, there has been a tenacious effort to make immigrant detentions as profitable as possible. GEO Group and CCA are big supporters of Operation Streamline, which is being carried out in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It requires criminal prosecution for all those who cross the border without proper immigration documents, including non-violent and first-time offenders. The “streamline” part comes in through the en masse trials, where up to 80 defendants plead guilty at one time, therefore dropping due process right on her tailbone.  CCA was also a crucial player in helping to create SB 1070 in Arizona, which for one, required foreign-born individuals to carry registration documents at all times.

So how bad is it really?

The pulpo of immigrant detention has reached its tentacles into many pots. It’s not enough to just house immigrants, these correctional facilities are host to a number of other functions that have been sold for profit. Food production is contracted out, as well as phone service providers, who then pass the cost onto inmates in the form of usually exorbitant fees. And the vehicles used to transport all those workers to their new homes, well, you guessed it, that’s a separate company too. In a privatized prison system, where every service that is able to be passed off is sold, accountability is eliminated and finding a responsible party for when abuses occur is even more difficult.  And don’t count on the Gang of Eight to help things out with their immigration reform, because six of them have received funding from either private prison companies, or banks like Wells Fargo, who are heavily involved with the industry as well. This money spent on lobbying is going towards growing the profit margins of companies like GEO Group and CCA by continuing to lock up immigrants and protect corporations from public scrutiny and accountability.

Bringing them all back home

The Bracero Program, which began in 1942, was a work-exchange agreement that brought millions of people from Mexico to the United States to supply labor for agricultural production. It was initially implemented as a contract between the two countries to provide the US with the workers it needed to keep the nation running during the war. Before the program, the US and Mexico border was not a heavily populated region. In 1964, the end of the program meant displacement for large numbers of workers, who found themselves sent back to the borderlands with no opportunities. Many braceros had money taken from their paychecks during their employment, something done under the pretense that it would be deposited into a savings account to help workers relocate at the end of their tenure. It’s no big shock that these funds never materialized, and many of these people were unaware that the money was even being taken in the first place. To this day, braceros have been fighting in court to reclaim their lost wages.

In 1964, the Mexican government enacted the Border Industrialization Program in order to provide employment for the multitudes of workers who had been displaced because of the Bracero Program, which had ended that same year. Over the decades, the increase in population in this area has led to a rise of enforcement practices, encouraged by the private prison industry. The recently-proposed immigration reform bill has called for more border presence and heightened internal enforcement, which includes using unreliable identification systems and expanding the use of drone surveillance aircraft. By now it’s clear that US economic and labor practices are a large part of what causes migration. It’s even more apparent that we will not confront our own foreign and economic policies when addressing immigration, but instead will continue to focus our efforts on punishing people who come here due to conditions that we have been responsible for creating. In this system we will continue to promote locking up immigrants as a way to produce profit, under the guise that it’s keeping the country safe and promoting “legal” residency. All this does is allow the migration of people determined only by corporate needs, which is a fast track to the exploitation of the very workers who should be acknowledged and compensated for their contributions. Instead, we built a powerful industry which profits from the criminalization of the people we rely on and their labor that we abuse.