Civil Liberties

How US Private Prisons Are Making Millions by Jailing Migrants in Deplorable Conditions

Undocumented migrants have become easy cash cows for private prison companies.

As states move for the first time in decades to address swollen prisoner populations, federal immigration detention centers are the new front in private prison corporations’ business strategy, and undocumented migrants their easy cash cows.

Around the country there are 13 Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, which are managed by private companies contracted by the federal Bureau of Prisons to house a total of 25,000 prisoners convicted of living in the United States without proper documentation. In the pursuit of profits, private prison corporations have created utterly fetid and psychologically frying conditions within these CARs, making even the most squalid prisons for citizens look better by comparison. The vulnerability of an inmate population without recognized citizenship, combined with aggressive immigration policy and legal statutes allowing for-profit detention centers to operate with lax oversight, have created conditions under which carceral corporations can operate legal gulags with an endless supply of incoming prisoners.

Over the last four years, the American Civil Liberties Union investigated five CARs in Texas that together house a total of 14,000 inmates, and on Tuesday released its findings in the report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped Our Shadow Private Prison System. Shockingly, they found that all of five CARs were serviced with contracts from the Bureau of Federal Prisons that include provisions requiring the CARs have a 10% “isolation cell” quota, which is double the rate at publicly federal managed prisons. With perverse incentives to send prisoners to solitary confinement—a measure the UN has condemned as torture—inmates have reportedly been thrown into isolated cells for complaining about food and medical care or pursuing legal grievances. The profit motive has rendered the CARs nearly absent all drug and medical treatment, along with opportunities for inmates’ self-development. In one facility in Raymondville, Texas, near the Mexican border, the center is so overcrowded that inmates live in cramped, vermin-infested Kevlar tents.

The Money Stream

The three largest and richest private prison corporations manage all 13 CARs across the country: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Together they took in $4 billion in revenue in 2012, and executives at CCA and the GEO Group received roughly $19 million in compensation that year.  

CARs house migrants who’ve been convicted of “illegal entry into the United States,” says Carl Takei, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project and one of the report’s lead authors.

“If you’re convicted [by the US government] of illegal entry, you go to a CAR prison, then you’re moved over to ICE civil enforcement system where you’re held pending the outcome of immigration case,” he told AlterNet.

CARs thus act as a middle-arena that wouldn’t exist if the federal government simply conducted immigrant enforcement through the civil system, which is what used to happen. But in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice jointly instituted a program called “Operation Streamline” that mandated migrants be prosecuted by the US government in addition to being processed for deportation. There’s little reason to criminally prosecute migrants in addition to processing them for deportation except to send a message.

Operation Streamline is a critical reason why there’s been a 145% increase in prisoners entering the federal prison system for immigration offenses between 1998 and 2012, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Feeding the CARs has been the job of the Customs and Border Patrol, which was formed in 2003 and now receives more money than all other federal agencies combined. The agency’s unprecedented pursuit of immigration offenses culminated in a tipping point in 2009, when the number of people serving time in federal prisons for mere immigration offenses outpaced those convicted for “violent, weapons and property offenses combined,” according to the ACLU report. The gap has grown wider since then as more immigrants are caught in the Department of Homeland’s dragnet every year.

The superfluous presence of privately managed CARs to incarcerate migrants before they’re moved to the civil system—a process abetted by Operation Streamline—has placed a greater burden on taxpayers to fund a hybrid criminal/civil immigration system. While citizens pay high costs for a bloated immigrant detention complex, private prison employees and investors have reaped great rewards, as the ACLU cites from comments made by a CCA executive:

“Let me just make a brief comment on Operation Streamline…. Before this initiative was put in place, only a small percentage of [il]legal persons crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were prosecuted....We are now experiencing significant numbers to further be in place in custody as a result of Operation Streamline…We believe that the Federal Bureau of Prisons…will continue to provide a meaningful opportunity for the industry for the foreseeable future.”

The Face of Opportunity

Inside the five Texas CARs the ACLU studied, prisoner revolts were a common occurrence, as desperate men protested the overuse of solitary confinement, overcrowding, putrid living conditions, and lack of edible food and proper medical treatment. Like all CARs, the Texas facilities have low security requirements because the majority of inmates are imprisoned solely because of their legal status, not because they are a threat to public safety.  

The most terrifying facility investigated by the ACLU was the 3,000-inmate Willacy County Detention Center, managed by the prison corporation MTC in Raymondville, Texas, known as “Ritmo” for its oppressive conditions similar to prisons at Guantanamo Bay.  

Prison staff reportedly sends new arrivals and dissident inmates at Ritmo to solitary cells for days or weeks at a time because there isn’t enough space in the Kevlar tents to house the steady influx of people. The facility’s fondness for banishing inmates to isolated cages is hardly an accident: In all the Bureau of Federal Prison contracts for CARs that the ACLU examined, private prison companies were encouraged to “place excessive numbers of prisoners in isolation.” In this way the government is complicit in prisoner torture, especially at the Willacy County center: the Bureau of Federal Prisons insisted on a 10% quota for solitary cells at Willacy even though some private prison bidders asked if the quota could be reduced.

At Ritmo, men whose minds aren’t melting in isolation must keep their sanity in an area so cramped it isn’t hyperbole to compare them to Stalin’s gulags. The tents at the Willacy Center are bursting with 200 inmates at a time, and are dirty, foul sumps of monotony where inmates must pass their days without any sort of programming or distraction from their conditions.

“It’s like walking through minefields,” said one Ritmo prisoner to the ACLU. “You never know when someone is going to explode, because everyone is frustrated.”

Conditions at the Willacy center were so bad they were featured in a PBS Frontline documentary in 2011, the same year Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was forced to cancel its contract with the prison corporation MTC following a Capitol Hill briefing. However, shortly after, MTC picked up a new contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to operate the Willacy center as a CAR instead of an immigration detention facility. Besides the contractor, little else has changed at Ritmo.

In addition to the torture of solitary and tent prison camps, MTC prison officials regularly deny inmates access to medical treatment in order to cut costs. The only dental treatment offered is crude tooth extraction, and inmates suffering serious ailments are merely given ibuprofen by medical staff. Similar treatment was found uniformly across all five Texas CARs.

Changing the System

The ACLU offers a wide-ranging list of recommendations for state and federal governments to address the inhumanity of the 13 privately managed CARs.

Among them, they suggest the federal Bureau of Prisons stop entering into contracts with prison corporations that have histories of mismanagement and scandal (which could apply to all of them) and cease facilitating cruelty with requirements like the 10% solitary rule.

The ACLU also suggests that the Department of Homeland Security bring Operation Streamline to an end, and that Congress open an investigation into the CARs while also closing legal loopholes that shield privately managed prisons from public disclosure requests. It goes without saying that any or all of these recommendations would seriously threaten the “meaningful opportunity” that migrant incarceration creates for the private prison industry, and perhaps that’s what the ACLU is ultimately after.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_