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America's Outsourced Immigration Prisons a Booming Business

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, both legal and illegal, are at the center of a huge prisoner outsourcing business.

Imprisoned immigrants in the large prison complex outside the small West Texas town of Pecos have rioted twice over the past few months complaining about inadequate medical care. Their complaints, sparked by the death of a sick inmate in solitary confinement, echo a chorus of similar complaints around the country about medical care in immigrant prisons.

Medical care, like most aspects of imprisonment in America, is outsourced at the Reeves County Detention Center. As a result, imprisoned immigrants don't know who exactly is imprisoning them, who is responsible for their medical care, and who they should petition when they have grievances.

Throughout America but particularly along the Southwest border, hundreds of thousands of immigrants, both legal and illegal, find themselves at the center of a booming prisoner outsourcing business. The imprisonment of immigrants is enriching a handful of private prison corporations and correctional healthcare firms while providing a stream of revenues to county governments in rural America.

Back in the mid-1980s the Reeves County government decided that its best hope for economic development was building a "speculative prison." At the time, this remote county, which occupies the northern reaches of the Chihuahua Desert, was reeling economically.

Cotton farmers and cattle ranchers abandoned their homesteads as ground water levels dropped and drilling costs increased. The oil boom that started in the 1950s went bust in the 1980s as oil reserves dwindled. The closure of the area's large sulfur mine and a food processing company in the early 1990s left hundreds more unemployed.

Seeking to take advantage of its remote location and the large number of unemployed, the county entered into the incipient business of outsourcing prisoners in 1986.

By bidding down the costs of providing prison beds and employing prison guards, Reeves County has over the past couple of decades expanded the initial 300-bed prison to the current 3,763-bed prison complex. The Reeves County Detention Center is now the center of the county's economic life.

The county, where one of every three residents lives below the poverty line, is projecting $67.2 million of revenues to come streaming into county coffers in 2009 from the immigrant prison business. Nearly 500 residents find employment in the immigrant prison, which pays guards $14.95 an hour.

Prison outsourcing is all about expenses, revenues, and profits. In other words, prisoner providers—in this case, mainly the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)—seek to do business with public and private prisons that have the lowest costs and hence lowest per-diem bed costs. The more prisoners that occupy the beds of the Reeves County Detention Center, the higher the revenues that come from the per-diem payments, and the higher the profit.

The bottom line of the prisoner outsourcing business is essentially the same as any other business, namely the sum of revenues and expenses. But in the case of Reeves County Detention Center, as with scores of other immigrant prisons, the prison business is somewhat more complicated—involving a labyrinth of federal agencies, local governments, private contractors and subcontractors, public bonds, and private investors.

The Reeves County Labyrinth

Not having enough room in federally-owned prisons and unwilling to build new ones, the Bureau of Prisons, like most federal detention agencies, outsources an increasing number of its charges and most all of its immigrant detainees. BOP outsources virtually all of its low-security "criminal alien residents" to county/private prisons in the Southwest.

Anticipating an ever-increasing demand for what the prison industry calls "beds," Reeves County has issued a series of project revenue bonds to finance the construction and maintenance of its ever-expanding prison. Convinced that the boom in the prison business will endure, private investors buy these bonds, thereby providing the $90 million the county needed for its prison project.

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